‘Women in Prison’ Is a Sobering, Real-Life Companion to ‘Orange Is the New Black’

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After last week’s bland but endearing Serial Thriller, Investigation Discovery is wasting no time rolling out another new summer show (and successfully capitalizing on its reality-TV strengths): Women in Prison. Not coincidentally, the docu-series is timed to coincide with Orange Is the New Black — it premieres Thursday night at 10 PM, just two hours before the third season of Orange hits Netflix. And Women in Prison is proudly, and unsubtly, touting itself as the real-life counterpart to the Netflix drama (right down to the prison-inspired black-and-orange title fonts). In a simplistic sense, it really is the reality version of Orange (it even follows the basic format), though it’s also decidedly more serious.

Each episode of Women in Prison follows two different inmates at the Maximum Security Indiana Women’s Prison, chronicling their lives behind bars (their friendships, relationships, regrets, visits with family, etc.), as well as jumping back to their previous lives and exploring the choices that landed them in prison. Because it’s a docu-series, it’s predictably less entertaining than Orange Is the New Black — there is no “Crazy Eyes,” nor is there Taryn Manning wielding a cross shiv, but there is a woman known as “Red” — taking on a more somber, but necessary, tone while dealing with very real women and their crimes.

In one-on-one interviews, inmates with varying sentences (one is awaiting final sentencing, one is sentenced to 68 years, etc.) talk about their first experiences in prison (“It was everything you’d see on TV”) and getting sent to the “lock” — which is described as “basically solitary confinement,” where the women end up mostly because of contact with other inmates (sometimes as seemingly innocuous as a handshake, a hug, a high five) that either is or could be construed as sexual. The inmates detail current happenings in prison, such as a friend leaving, a budding relationship, a visitation from a family member they haven’t seen in decades, and even a talent show where inmates can show off their slam poetry or music skills. “Prison is brutal, but once a year we get to showcase our talents,” says one of the show’s subjects.

Throughout the docu-series (which consists of three hourlong episodes; I watched the first two), the inmates deal with drama on the outside that they can’t fully participate in. One inmate finds out, in the pilot, that someone close to her committed suicide, while another is suddenly served divorce papers (and learns that her husband wants sole custody of their son). It borders on devastating, watching these women discuss the ways in which these outside events weigh on them day after day — and how they basically have all the time in the world to just think about them, turning them over and over in their minds.

The most compelling bits of the series involve the inmates revealing their crimes. This, too, is highly reminiscent of Orange Is the New Black. The audience is treated to flashbacks dispersed throughout each episode, slowly teasing out these women’s crimes in incredibly dramatic sequences. Unfortunately, this is where Women in Prison loses itself a bit; it’s so loyal to the network’s penchant for silly reenactments that the theatrics and ridiculous soundtrack take away from the seriousness of the program, providing a jarring juxtaposition. But the stories themselves are usually enough to ground the show, which mostly concerns itself with women that you wouldn’t imagine would end up in prison: a former cheerleader whose injury led to a painkiller addiction, a preacher’s daughter who fell in with the wrong crowd (and the wrong man, of course, as so many women on Women in Prison and Orange tend to do).

While Women in Prison is a more sobering alternative to the occasionally fun-filled fictional antics of Litchfield, it’s also a more truthful and devastating look at what happens in a women’s prison.Women in Prison isn’t trying to replace Orange Is the New Black in our lives (as if anything could), but it does work surprisingly well as a companion piece.