2014: The Year Pop Culture Took On Prison and the American Justice System

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Piper Kiernan’s book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison was published in 2010. It initially appeared on my radar via an excerpt in Marie Claire, followed up by a New York Times Modern Love column from Larry Smith (yes, Piper’s real-life husband Larry) about what it was like to have a girlfriend in prison. At the time, I found Kerman’s book to be an awkward mix of the then-trendy “My Year In…” memoir and chick-lit. It was a story that demanded a happy ending (in this case, marriage to Larry), but also one rooted in a serious topic: our prison system.

The book was shallow. It was, in fact, everything you might have feared Orange Is the New Black the Netflix series would be based on its preview — the story of a pretty blonde lady who went to Smith and ended up having an OK time in prison because she was a “nice white lady,” getting along with all sorts of people of different races and backgrounds and leaving after a year. I wasn’t comfortable with our first glimpse of “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), singing “chocolate and vanilla, swiiiiiiiiiiirl,” in response to Piper (Taylor Schilling) saying, “I have a prison wife.” With no context, it seemed like it was making a cheap joke about Crazy Eyes’ “scary” sexual desire.

It didn’t take long to realize I was wrong about the show. I devoured Season 1 of OITNB over a summer weekend. I cried heaving sobs during Episode 11, “Tall Men With Feelings,” when Suzanne hears TV-Larry’s shallow summation of prison life, and his verdict that she was “crazy,” on a faux-NPR program. That scene, in miniature, was the show’s own declaration of intent. It really was a Trojan horse, whereby creator Jenji Kohan ran with Kerman’s basic framework to create a nuanced portrayal of women that we rarely have on television or on film or in the media: poor, black, Latina, trans, terminally ill, queer, old, nuns. So many different women.

While Season 1 took a Lost-type framework, starting with Piper’s journey through prison and eventually illuminating the lives of her fellow inmates, Season 2 built on that ensemble. We learned more about Taystee (Danielle Brooks), whose first season plotline showed the effects of recidivism in the prison community: she got released, she didn’t have the resources to build a life at all, and she quickly ended up back in prison. In Season 2, we saw that she was a foster kid, preyed upon by Vee, a drug dealer who created a new family in the name of crime. We learned that Rosa, a Latina thief who was just a wise-cracking elderly woman with cancer in Season 1, was a youthful daredevil, looking death in the eye with equal parts bravado and fear. We got to see that she was a person.

To digress slightly, I have a relative who is in her 90s. She is as sharp as a tack, but sometimes, in public, I see the indignities of age played out through the way people react to her. People talk to her in a voice slow and loud, like she can’t hear them, like she doesn’t know what’s going on. They make assumptions about what she’s like, as a woman in her 90s, before they get to know what she’s like. A show like Orange Is the New Black is pulling off a similar magic to my relative who’s constantly being underestimated: presenting you with a wide array of stereotypes at the start, then pulling back the veil so that your feelings for each character grow. People upend your expectations with their humanity.

But it’s not just the role of women in Orange Is the New Black that makes the show so interesting. It’s also the way that prison is a character on the show; an American institution that’s broken, a system whose edges are shabby and strained. It’s an inhumane setting for a work that’s determined to show us a wide variety of humanity. Orange Is the New Black may be the splashiest example of what has become a real trend: pop culture that takes real issues like life in prison, death row, and the nature of justice as a jumping-off point.

It’s the right time for work like Orange Is the New Black. It’s no coincidence that the show’s cast has been a vocal presence around social justice issues. Just this month, when New Yorkers took to the street for #millionsmarchNYC, protesting the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the injustice served in their name, cast member Vicky Jeudy (who plays Janae Watson) tweeted a photo:

This is a powerful image. Cast members of a show that depicts people in prison for reasons that relate to social and economic inequality are out on the streets protesting that inequality in our real-life justice system. And what’s even more interesting is that Orange Is the New Black is only one of the many popular works, across mediums, to take on prison and the justice system in 2014.

Serial, the podcast started by This American Life‘s Sarah Koenig, used injustice as its starting point. Koenig investigated a murder in real time, trying to prove that Adnan Syed was innocent in the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Throughout the series, Koenig creates some compelling, beyond-reasonable doubt regarding Syed’s guilt. The Innocence Project has taken on his case; and with the final episode on the books and Syed’s new appeal hearing set for January, there’s a possibility that his situation will change. The story still feels ongoing, in the way that the West Memphis Three held the attention of the Paradise Lost documentarians, starting an epic, three-part story that ended with the three men who had been sentenced to death and life in prison receiving their freedom in 2011.

There’s also Sundance TV’s magnificent Rectify, a story that is very much influenced by the case of the West Memphis Three. It’s about a man — Daniel Holden — who’s newly freed after 19 years on death row for the murder of his teenage girlfriend. Whether Daniel is guilty or innocent is the slight engine driving this show, but much of it starts with one question: What is it like to be alive, especially after you thought that you were going to die? And little by little, incremental move by incremental move, we see Daniel’s brand-new life, as he gets to feel sunlight on his face.

Rectify has gotten silly criticisms for its glacial pace, as if every show should be Breaking Bad-level plot-heavy. Rectify isn’t slow; it moves at the pace of life. We learn with Daniel just what it’s like to be human again after 19 years. What’s very smart about the show, however, is that the way that social justice lies in the background. The Innocence Project is mentioned, and Daniel’s crusading young lawyer, Jon Stern, is a major character in the show.

Whether Daniel committed murder or not, and whether or not he will end up back in prison, are some of the ideas driving this show. But the beauty of Rectify comes from the way that it illuminates what it’s like to be able to live a life, to be alive in the world. When Daniel’s friend on death row, Kerwin, says his goodbyes, he looks at his “brother” and says to him: “I know you didn’t do it. Because I know you. Because I know you. Because I know you.” We’re always afraid of not being seen, and America has set up its class system so that much of the time people — especially the people who watch prestige cable dramas — don’t need to think about prison. A show like Rectify makes its characters known, makes its characters seen. It’s a journey into being human, and as art, it’s also arguing against injustice.

Perhaps the most moving words I read about injustice this year came from lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whose unforgettable book Just Mercy details his 20-plus years fighting for the downtrodden — men, women, and, most heartbreakingly, children — lost in our legal system:

The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich… The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

In all honestly, I cried quite a bit while reading Just Mercy, because our prison system is cruel and inhumane. The work that Stevenson does — and by god, it is work — is one small pebble against what seems to be a mountain of bureaucracy, set up, ostensibly, to “keep us safe.” It’s awe-inspiring to read about the case of Walter McMillian, for example: a man who was falsely accused of murder, convicted on the testimony of one frightened man bullied by the police, sent to death row, and convinced that he was going to die for six years. McMillian is freed, thanks to the relentless work of Stevenson, a stalwart face battling racism, prejudice, and look-the-other-way incompetence.

But Stevenson presents case after case, the lives that have made up the work of his life. Hearing about young men of limited mental capacity who spend 18 years in solitary confinement, sending him letters that say “thank you for taking a photo of me one day,” makes your heart break in two and shatter on the ground. There’s something rotten in American society, and Stevenson doesn’t skimp on the statistics. Since 1970, our prison population has risen 700 percent, and lots of these cases are for what could be considered minor infractions.

This has been a heady year for social justice in America. While injustice is everywhere, embedded in our institutions, it is exciting to see protest, talk, and real engagement with issues that are far too easy to sweep under the rug. We can be ostriches when it comes to social issues that are, categorically, painted in black and white. The powerful reactions that I’ve had to work like Rectify and Orange Is the New Black come from those shows’ willingness to show us that life is not that simple; we contain multitudes, and even cases of wrongdoing can come with their own shades of gray.

Maybe as culture engages with settings like prison, with ideas like wrongful imprisonment, we get to open our hearts a little bit more. Perhaps it’s practice for learning how to apply the quality of mercy to our real lives. As Stevenson writes, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” We start with engagement and mercy in the work done in these pieces of culture; may we take these lessons, and our broken hearts, and use them in the world as we learn how to see people, in all their imperfections and potential for grace.