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My friend Susan K. (a pseudonym) is a decidedly reformed ex-convict who spent four years in Maryland maximum security prison for drug-related armed robbery in the late ’90s. (Read her full story here.) Last year, we reviewed multiple episodes of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, a Netflix show that takes place in a women’s prison.
She has agreed to review a few episodes of Season 3. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Norma is performing a sort of Santeria-based ritual on prisoners.
Were there a lot of religious converts while you were in prison?
I mean, it depends what you mean by “convert.” A lot of people would get all born-again if they thought they could get something out of it. Like maybe it would look good in front of a parole board or something. And I already told you about the Ramadan thing. I mean, there was one chick who would go to services and just like, hoot and holler and collapse and shit, but she was also totally loan sharking people.
Did anybody ever become a sort of guru, like Norma here?
No. I mean, in the first place, nobody was really willing to buy the idea of energy as a religious experience. And also, a lot of them were superstitious as hell. I mean, dude, they all thought I was a fucking witch, you know? I went to chapel once to celebrate the solstice, and I had a candle and a fucking toothbrush because I couldn’t get a leaf or a flower or anything, and you’d have thought I was like, sacrificing cats in there. What do you think they’d do if some con-artist was in there trying to do magical miracle treatment?
In a flashback sequence, Nicky and two friends steal a taxi in an attempt to acquire heroin. She immediately crashes it.
What did your friends think of your heroin problem?
It wasn’t discussed. At least not in front of me. I mean, most of them didn’t even know, because I didn’t want to make a big production out of it. You know, it’s really fucking illegal for one thing, and it’s also pretty shameful. It’s a bit heavier than having an eighth of weed in your dresser. It’s weird, though, with some heroin addicts, because some of them get really snobby about it, you know? It’s the dumbest thing in the world, it’s killing them, it’s costing them everything, but it’s like they’re somehow hipper than you because of it. Like to the point where they sort of sneer at people who don’t do heroin. They’re like “You just don’t GET IT, MAAAAAAN.” Like they’re that fucking tedious indie rock guy who accuses everyone of selling out, you know? Or it’s like when you see somebody with a dumb ass neck tattoo, and it always feels like they’re looking down on you, somehow.
But you didn’t have that mind set?
I don’t think so. I hope not. I sure didn’t have it by the time I got to Jessup.
The Latinas are tanning and making plans for Daya’s wedding. Maria tells them that once they leave prison, they will probably never speak to each other again.
Are you in contact with any of the inmates you did time with?
Nope. I mean, who am I going to hang with? Poot Stinkum? Am I gonna call her up and see if she’s got that farting thing sorted out yet? But there was this one girl in Patuxent who I got friendly with. And I got out before she did, and she fucking wrote me every day, man. Every day. And I just never wrote her back. I didn’t want anything to do with prison or anyone in prison. You know, we actually became Facebook friends not too long ago. Fifteen years seems to be a decent enough interval.
Yeah. And you better believe that I took a good long look at her page before I accepted the request. Like, “Well, let’s see, she’s 700 miles away, married, kids, no “Mourn Ya ’Til I Join Ya” shit on her page, well, that’s probably safe.”
Any plans to see her?
No. I mean, look, even if she’s all squared away, it’s kind of embarrassing, you know? Prison isn’t like summer camp. And who wants to be reminded of the big pile of shit that used to be your life, particularly if things are infinitely better now? And it is better now! So much better! Damn, you know, I’m like walking through the grocery store and saying hi to neighbors, and they have no idea! And most of the time, I have no idea! I’m like, “Hi, Joanne! Quick, Seventh Generation is on sale! Haha! Oh, did you see Pretty Little Liars? It was SO. GOOD!” I’m happy here, dammit.
In another flashback sequence, Nicky and some of her heroin addict friends make plans to steal a rare book from a mutual acquaintance. It is clear that she has no intention of using any proceeds from the robbery to bail her other friends out of prison.
Did you ever do any shady things like that in service of your habit?
Well, I participated in three robberies, dude, with guns that were stolen from my boyfriend’s dad.
Well, sure, but I mean did you rip off your friends or anything like that?
You know, for a while I had kind of a weird ethical code when it came to stuff like that. I never stole from friends, or like, boosted my roommate’s computer to score. There’s this mythology with heroin users that once they take it the first time, they all just immediately steal everything that isn’t nailed down, and just run out into the alleys to start blowing people, but it actually takes a long time before you become a completely shitty person. Believe it or not, I was a functional heroin addict for about a year and a half. A lot of people are, you know. I’m willing to bet you know a few people like that without even knowing they’re junkies.
What do you mean by “functional?”
I mean that I was able to maintain an actual sort of lower middle class existence. I had a job waiting tables. I had friends. I had a dog. And I’d get up and walk the dog and clean the apartment and go do my shift, and I’d generally make enough money to support both my life and my heroin habit. And that went swinging along just fine until it didn’t. And I still managed to be pretty good at it. Like, all of a sudden I wasn’t making enough at the restaurant to both score and live, so I started stealing from the restaurant, and that worked fine up until they got this computer system. Then eventually I got fired because I was out trying to score instead of showing up on time, and then things got shitty.
Shitty like how?
Well, it’s hard to describe what that pull is like, you know? I read some doctor describe the physical symptoms of withdrawal like it’s just a bad case of the flu, you know, and I just thought “Well, fuck that guy.” I mean, yeah, you puke, and your bones ache, and you get the chills and the shakes, but what they don’t talk about is the total brain-rape depression and guilt and fear and anxiety and all that goes with it. It’s the worst feeling in the world. And if you even get in the neighborhood of that, you’ll do most anything to avoid it. So I lost the job, and couldn’t really get another one because scoring became a full-time occupation. And then I did some pretty shitty things. I bounced a bunch of checks. I even stole a friend’s bike and fenced it, and I felt bad about it, but the way you rationalize it is pretty amazing. I was like, “Yeah, that’s shitty, but you know, her parents are rich. This won’t hurt her at all really.” And then I tried to get clean a few times, but each time I’d end up hooking up with some other heroin addict.
Isn’t that counterproductive?
Absolutely it is! The addict brain is like a chick on the uneven parallel bars, dude. You just twist and spin and fly and grab on to it at the last possible second, and you stick that justification every time. So what my brain would do is sort of sniff out the other heroin addicts, always male, always total dirtbags, and I’d just fall in love.
Oh, of course. I mean, these guys were total fuckups. Emaciated, beyond hope, everyone hated them, they had stolen from everyone and burned all their bridges, but to the fucking lizard part of my brain that wanted heroin, these guys looked like Brad Pitt, you know? Being around them gave me an excuse to do more heroin, and as a result, I just loved them SOOOOOOOO very much. But it’s not like I’m blaming all the bad shit on my choice in men. I did some unbelievably stupid things when I didn’t have a boyfriend.
Oh, dude, I was a police informant for a while.
What? Where? Here?
No. I was in a city that shall remain nameless. A few time zones away.
Yeah. So I got busted, not with a lot of heroin, but just my standard daily bit of vitamin H, and the cops out there gave me a choice, so I took it. But I ended up using that to get more heroin.
How did you do that without getting busted again?
Well, when you watch TV, its like, police headquarters looks like fucking NORAD, you know? They make it look like cops have all these cutting edge electronics, and enormous forensic departments and shit, but they really don’t. They sure didn’t back in the day, anyway. That police station I was in looked like a fucking Elks Lodge with a cell in it, you know? So they weren’t like, making me wear wires or anything, or shadowing me. But they’d give me money and have me go buy heroin, and then I’d bring the heroin back and tell them where I got it. But what I started to do was tell them that the heroin was twice as expensive as it was. So I’d buy twice as much, stash half of it, and then bring the rest back to the cops.
I’m wondering how the hell you got out of that.
I just disappeared. Left town. Went back east. When it started to feel like they were going to actually make me wear wires and like, take down “Mr. Big” or whatever, I just split. I mean, they probably had dozens of fuckups like me running around town. Disappearing probably just meant less paperwork for them.
Weren’t you worried about that coming back to bite you when you got arrested later?
I mean, I wasn’t even thinking about it at the time. That was like two years later. But I doubt the cops in that city were going to fly someone across two time zones to come get my ass. They caught me with enough to get high and that’s it, and all the people they were going to bust had probably already gotten busted or were dead, and I had an armed robbery charge. Anyway, the point is that it never came up.
I want to say that you were “lucky,” but that doesn’t really work here.
I was sort of like Wile E. Coyote in those cartoons, except I never looked down. You know how like the Road Runner would just go off a cliff and keep running and get all the way over to the other side? And then the Coyote would follow off the cliff and would actually keep going, and then he looks down and reality kicks in, and that’s what fucks him? I just never looked down. I just kept going.
Caputo is walking to his car when he meets Fig. She provides him with the name of a private prison company, which could prevent Litchfield from closing.
Were Jessup and Patuxent run by private prison companies?
No, thank God. That shit just makes me nervous and angry.
Why do they make you nervous?
Well, look, when I was in, every now and then things would be cut, you know? Like they’d stop giving GED classes, or the food in the chow hall got even worse because the state went to a cheaper and shittier vendor. And when that happened, it sucked, but I could at least intellectualize it, you know? Like, the prisons have less money because the politicians fucked with the budget, or some journalist guy would do one of those, “Do you believe how many taxpayer dollars are being spent on cushy perks for prisoners?” articles, and shit would just get incrementally worse, but at least they weren’t getting worse because someone was making money out of it being worse, you know?
What does that mean?
OK, like, let’s say that the blankets are all shitty and ratty and need to be replaced, but they never do. If the state is running the prison, the reason the blankets don’t get replaced is because the state doesn’t have the money. It sucks, but like, I can at least understand it, you know? But one of those fucking prison corporations absolutely has the money to replace the blankets, but they won’t because replacing the blankets means less quality dividends for them at the end of the quarter. And like, fuck that, you know?
OK. So basically, with the state, conditions are shitty because prisons are not a priority in the budget. With privately run prisons, conditions are shitty because keeping the prisons shitty means more money for the company that runs the prison.
Right. And nobody on the outside has a real problem with prisons being shitty, so nobody ever really complains. With private prisons, you’re just a notation on some QuickBooks file somewhere. I mean, I guarantee you that if Patuxent was run by one of those fucking companies, there’s no way I would have gotten day releases. There’s no way I would have been able to get that work release job at the restaurant, or if I were able to, they would have confiscated all the money that I made. Come to think of it, Patuxent wouldn’t have been Patuxent.
What do you mean?
Well, Patuxent had counselors and stuff like that. I mean, it was still a maximum security prison, but it was meant for people who weren’t complete fuckups and were going to get out eventually. And the idea was to sort of gradually de-institutionalize the inmates so they wouldn’t grab some clerk by the hair eight days after getting released, you know? And that kind of shit costs money, which means less money for the company. Counselors would probably get cut immediately, and that decision would probably be made by two frat boy jerk off brothers in the middle of a game of racquetball. “Yeah, Todd from accounting has crunched the numbers on the backend, and we save by ditching the counselors, and we also see more revenue from high recidivism rates!” And then he wins the game with a backhand, and those two high five and then hit the showers and touch their dicks together, and the company has made more money and all is right with the world, except for those women in Patuxent who might have managed to stay out of prison if they had counseling, but who gives a shit about them, right?
So you would not recommend that Litchfield be taken over by a private corporation?
Dude, I wouldn’t recommend that those prison corporations exist at all! Those fuckers should scare the hell out of everybody, whether you’re a convict or not! Like, I didn’t get arrested and booked by corporate security, you know? I didn’t go to trial in front of a jury of stockholders, and I wasn’t judged by a CEO. Why should a corporation make money off of locking people up? Like, prison is shitty enough without the knowledge that the reason everything sucks is so some dickhead CEO will get a bonus. And aside from that, have you considered that it’s in their best interests to have as many people locked up for as long as possible? That’s the business model. They want stricter sentencing. They want stricter drug laws. And they want all of that, not because they’re particularly concerned about crime and safety and drugs, but because the more people they lock up, the more money they make.
I mean, anytime you see some state senator or congressman or whatever, and he’s doing that whole “tough on crime” tap dance, and he’s trying to get mandatory minimum sentencing, or he’s trying to abolish parole, or he’s trying to get “one strike and you’re out” put on the books, or he’s recommending that we lock up illegal immigrants for a few years before we deport them, I guarantee you that one of those private prison corporations has a finger up that guy’s ass. They probably wrote the damn legislation for him. Those people are absolute evil, man, and coming from a heroin addict that robbed a goddamned dry cleaner, that’s saying something.
Nicky holds on to one bag of heroin and hides it in Luschek’s desk. Caputo and the guards come in and find it, and Luschek points the finger at Nicky. She is immediately sent down the hill to the maximum security wing.
Do you think maybe this is what it will take for Nicky to finally free herself of heroin? I mean, this is sort of how you did it.
I have no idea. But I’ll guarantee you that she’ll get a haircut, and she’ll shut the fuck up. She’ll definitely do that if she knows what’s good for her.
Photo via Netflix