My friend Susan K. is a prosperous Virginia business-owner who served four years and change in a Maryland state prison for drug-related robbery charges in her 20s. When I asked her if she’d watched Orange Is the New Black, she said, “Dude, why in the hell would I want to watch a show about the worst four years of my fucking life?”
A few weeks later, she told me that she had watched a few episodes, mainly because she was “tired of reading about some Wellesley graduate on the Internet talking about how goddamned real that show is. As if she would know.”
This weekend, we watched the fifth episode of Season 2. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
(Read Susan’s full story in her review of episodes 1 and 2.)
Episode 5: “Low Self Esteem City” The Latinas are all showering when the drains begin to back up. WCP: Was there usually a line for the showers? Susan: You know, on this show it’s like an Oil of Olay commercial when these girls shower up. It’s like they all luxuriate under the hot water with all the time in the world. Must be nice. And what’s with the curtains? In what universe do guards want prisoners to have a shower curtain to hide behind? What was it actually like? The guards timed it. You had at most five minutes and that was it. Shampoo in your hair, soap in the crack of your ass, whatever, they didn’t care. “OUT! MOVE! OUT!” You learned to get everything taken care of pretty quick. I heard the male prison was the same way. What’s weird is that the prototype prison rape scenario that scares everybody is supposed to happen in the showers, but you’d have to be the fucking Flash in order to actually pull that off. (In a flashback scene, Gloria is seen trading food stamps for cash.)
Oh, wow. I used to do that all the damn time.
Really? Was it easy?
Totally. But most stores would only give you about 30 cents on the dollar. We found this one place that would give you 60 cents. That was heaven. We never shoplifted from that store.
Why would you shoplift when you had food stamps?
Because I needed the food stamps to trade for money so I could get heroin, dude. I could always steal food. I needed to buy heroin.
Yeah. I was pretty fucked up.
Big Boo and Nicky are establishing the rules and the point system in their sexual competition.
Ok, so, let’s say for the sake of television entertainment value that all the guards suddenly fell into a coma and all the cameras stopped working, and that this contest actually happened. Wouldn’t it be a safer bet to put your money on the chick who didn’t look like Fred Flintstone? It’s a prison, not a damn home for the blind.
So Nicky has a better shot at winning?
Well, I mean, if the point is that the diesel chick is going to rack up all these bitches by intimidation or offers of protection, which is really the only way a girl who looks like that can score in prison, then she’s only going to get one at a time, right? And also, I’m not buying this whole immediate seduction of the new inmates, like it’s a thing that just happens. “Here, inmate, here’s your toothbrush, here’s your shoes, and here’s the big diesel chick you have to go down on.” A lot of women in prison are gay for the stay, but it at least takes them a while to warm up to the idea. I think here they just sort of transplanted the male nightmare about prison and put it in the women’s prison scenario.
So, again, not realistic?
No. I’m just not buying that all the new inmates would be lining up to bang the diesel chick. This contest thing sort of feels like they made this to get more lesbians to subscribe to Netflix. And, like, more power to Netflix. I’m just saying this isn’t real life. (The black girls are eating lunch and complaining about poor treatment. Vee informs them that black women used to hold considerable authority among the inmates.) I completely accept that groups will segregate by themselves, but it all seems to be a little too clean here. Like, all the black girls work in maintenance. All the Latinas work the kitchen. And they all have their own tables like high school. I mean, are the guards going to look at that situation and just sort of assume nothing bad is going to happen?
What was the cafeteria like?
The chow hall was like everything else in the prison. You got in line and they told you where to sit. You didn’t walk around carrying a tray and looking for a place. Some days, [as a white person,] I would sit next to a black girl, then a Latina, then a white girl, depending on who was in front of me in line. Something like that is never up to the prisoners.
But was there segregation otherwise?
Well, sure, when it was left up to the prisoners. But then again, it wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to accomplish. When I was there, Jessup was like, 85 percent black women. So it wasn’t like this evenly matched thing. And it wasn’t, like, a unified front among the white girls, by any stretch of the imagination.
How would white girls segregate?
There were different types of white girls. There were the methed out born-again hillbillies, and there were the white girls who acted black, who I think sort of expected to be welcomed with open arms by the actual black girls. They got set straight on that shit pretty quick. But I mean, really, it wasn’t like the black inmates were the Sisterhood of the Traveling Fucking Pants either.
What sort of groups would the black girls divide into?
Well, keep in mind, it wasn’t like I was part of the fucking crew or anything, but it’s basically like this: Most of the black girls came from either P.G. County or Baltimore. Big county, big city, but also pretty small when it comes to people who fuck up enough to get sent to prison. They would recognize each other from the outside. So some girls from P.G. County would be automatically pissed at other girls from P.G. County, and Baltimore girls would be pissed at other Baltimore girls, and it seemed like Baltimore and P.G. just did not mix much at all. The point is, race mattered, but within the races, neighborhoods mattered more.
Where did you fit in?
I was the quiet, bank robbing, junkie witch girl. So I didn’t fit in.
Red is in the greenhouse with her new gang of elderly inmates when Healy comes in to ask for advice on how to better relate to his Russian wife.
Were there elderly prisoners while you were in there?
Yeah, and they scared the piss out of me. I stayed the hell away from them.
Well, just think about the sort of crime that you have to commit to be old and gray in prison. I mean, I know it seems like they dish out life sentences all the time, but really, you have to do something completely fucking horrible to get life in prison. Here, they make it seem like these chicks are your dotty old aunt, but, like, they had to have killed someone, or more likely a few someones to get in for that long. Plus most of them have been in so long, it’s like they have no other way to be. Those women are just sort of existing, you know?
Did the guards ever ask prisoners for advice about their personal lives?
This element of the story is so stupid and unrealistic that I’m just going to pretend it isn’t happening. I can suspend disbelief when I take my niece to see Frozen, but I can’t for shit like this.
Piper’s mother and brother visit her, and she finds out that her grandmother has taken ill.
What was it like to get visits from friends and relatives?
There is a big difference between jail visitations [in locally run facilities for people awaiting trial or serving short sentences] and prison visitations [in state- or federal-run facilities]. Like, after I first got arrested and was waiting for the trial and everything, a visit wasn’t something I looked forward to. In the jail they actually make you do that Hollywood thing with the glass separating you, and you have to pick up the phone and all that. And I was shellshocked and just getting off of heroin and ashamed of myself. So it was bad. I mean, it’s like, “Hi Dad!” But prison was different. I had a little time to get used to doing five years, so my mindset was a little better.
Do they make you do the glass and the phone thing?
No, there was a visiting room. And you had a visitation list, but you could only have 10 people on it, and they had to make sure that none of them were ex-convicts, or like, your pimp or something. And it took a while for them to get approved, so you don’t see anyone for a month or two after you get in. On this show it took eight seconds before Piper was able to see a visitor. But the visitors get searched before they come in, and prisoners definitely have to do the bend over and cough thing when you leave the visiting room. Family members used to come and visit me every week for a while, but I started telling them to stop coming so often.
This goes back to the “avoid being better than everybody” rule. Having a family that gives a shit enough to see you all the time puts you in that category. The other inmates would get shitty about it. (In another flashback scene, Gloria is dealing with an abusive boyfriend.)
Were there a lot of abused women in prison?
Well—-there were some hard bitches in there, you know? Like, I have a hard time imagining some of them getting, you know, “abused” in the traditional sense. I can see them duking it out with their boyfriends, but not just taking it … After about two years of good behavior, or as good as it can get in a shithole like Jessup, I got transferred to Patuxent, which wasn’t minimum security, but was trying to be more, I don’t know, forward-thinking, I guess. Anyway, in Patuxent, there were a few women who got sentenced for shooting their abusive husbands. One just sort of waited for the dude to pass out in bed and then shot him.
Did any of them poison their husbands?
What, like that Dixie Chicks song? Shut the fuck up, dude.
(The Latinas have had all their boots tied together by Taystee and Black Cindy.)
What’s the likelihood of something like that happening?
Oh, Christ, zero. There weren’t a lot of zany pranks going in fucking Jessup, dude, you know? Look, here’s an interesting little tidbit about being in prison: The word “yours” has a pretty flimsy definition. I mean, you can say that a bag of animal crackers that you bought in the commissary is “yours.” But everything else? The cot, the soap, the towel, the clothes, the shoes? All of that shit is property of the Department of Corrections. All of it. Like, remember that hillbilly I was telling you about who was ripping out magazine pictures? She got a charge for that. She defaced DoC property. And EVERYTHING is DoC property. It’s a total chickenshit and easy way for the guards to lord it over you. So if the guards saw these girls tying a bunch of boots together, the Latinas would have been the least of their worries.
(Red and Piper are discussing Piper’s sick grandmother.)
Sure. I just love on this show how Piper flits around between the Latinas and the black girls and the Russian Mafia women and the hicks and they all just seem to really like and relate to her. Like, once these criminals from the deepest part of the projects just get to know the chick who went to, like, Bryn Mawr or wherever the fuck, they’ll all find some common ground. I mean, I had two whole semesters of community college, and none of them resented the shit out of that at all.
Did they not like you?
They hated me. I only got five years, dude. Plus I had family and commissary. Again, if it wasn’t for the armed robbery and witchcraft bullshit it would have been a lot worse for me.
(The black girls have discovered that the Latinas have put salt in their food and are unhappy about it.)
Yeah, here we go again with the pranks! Oh those wacky inmates! Is this supposed to be fucking Revenge of the Nerds or something?
So tell me specifically what you don’t like about this scene.
Ok, well, for one thing, the guards back in the kitchen would notice if the prisoners they were supervising were deviating from their instructions. And secondly, if a fucking criminal were to put something in your food, it wouldn’t be extra salt. It would be Drano. I mean, if you piss off a waiter at Ruby Tuesday’s they do foul shit to your food. What do you think somebody in prison would do?
(Healy and Caputo are in a bar, complaining about the difficulties they have in “taking care of these women.”)
What is your opinion of the male counselor and administrative characters?
I mean, I can kind of buy the suit-wearing bitch [Fig]. Completely detached, doesn’t give a shit. It’s weird that she is walking around, because administrators never get near the prisoners. I was almost two-and-a-half years in before I even saw anybody wearing a suit. But the idea of these counselors? Yeah, that’s pretty far-fetched. We didn’t have counselors. We had a doctor who would prescribe you antidepressants at the drop of a hat.
Was there a lot of that?
Oh yeah. Practically everybody was on something. I think it made the guards’ job a lot easier if everybody was on Wellbutrin or Paxil or whatever. The line to the clinic every day was always really long. But this “taking care of these women” thing the guy with the band is talking about? Yeah, that’s bullshit. You aren’t there to be taken care of. You’re there to be punished. They want to make it worse than just doing time. They flex. They show that they have the power.
How do they do that?
By controlling every part of your existence. Even walking down the hall, you have to be on one side, and you have to keep moving, and you can’t slow down. Otherwise it’s “MOVE, INMATE, MOVE! MOVE MOVE MOVE!” And if it isn’t constantly being yelled at, it’s the constant jibes and disrespect. Like, they always gave you mean and smart-ass remarks during mail call, or in line at chow, or the shower, or when you leave the visiting room and they see that you look sort of happy they jam a finger up your ass and root around. You know, just so you don’t forget where you are for a second.
Were they allowed to do that?
I don’t know. Probably not, but there isn’t exactly a rule book they give you, you know? And even if it was illegal, who would be dumb enough to report a guard? They cover each other’s asses, you know? Even as they were jamming a finger up mine.
(Piper gets a requested furlough to visit her sick grandmother.)
Jesus. The blonde bitch wins again. Man. I kind of want to kill her myself.