Has 'OITNB' Changed How We View Prisoners?

by Rachel Simon

When Patty* was released after eight years in prison, the first thing she did was visit her parents. Both her mother and father were executives for large corporations, and she figured that if anyone could help her figure out her next move post-jail, it'd be them. Yet, despite all their resources — financial support, networking opportunities, connections at companies — they couldn't help. Instead, Patty "floundered around," and resigned herself to the fact that her criminal background would always be the first thing people saw. Giving up on finding gainful employment, Patty turned back towards the criminal activities that landed her in jail in the first place. "I ended up going back into that lifestyle and giving up for awhile and just saying, 'Well, this is the hole I dug for myself, now I’m gonna have to deal with it and live in it,'" she tells Bustle.

Eventually, Patty got it together, after a friend told her about an organization called The Fortune Society. Fortune, whose mission "is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration," hired Patty as a volunteer, and, later, as a workshop facilitator. She went back to school, got a certification as an alcohol/substance abuse counselor, and connected with other former inmates who'd gone on to success, all thanks to Fortune. After so many rejections from companies unable to look past her record, Patty's willingness to work — not to mention her extensive, pre-prison resume that included high-profile corporations like Lehman Brothers and IBM — was finally put to use. “The more I talked to people and found out what [opportunities] they already knew [about], the more options opened up for me," she says.

"We all need second chances."

In the past, if you knew where to look, the problems with America's prison system were never much of a secret — there's no shortage of coverage about the problems facing those who are incarcerated. In the last few years, however, the issues plaguing present and former prisoners have become impossible to ignore — a change that's due, in large part, to the popularity of Orange is the New Black . Since the premiere of the Netflix drama in 2013, everything wrong with the prison system and its supposed "rehabilitation" of its inmates has come into focus, from the lack of real support (no computer classes, little counseling) to the truth about its job fairs (you can dress up and memorize your notes, but don't expect a real job to come your way). People are also beginning to see that not all prisoners are the scary, unsympathetic characters seen on Oz or Prison Break — many of them are simply human beings who made a few wrong choices. That stigma that Patty and so many others faced upon getting out of jail? It still exists, yes, but for the first time, people are wondering why.

When OITNB was first released last summer, the big question on everyone's minds was: Is the show real? Do prisoners really form cliques based on race? Are the guards actually that cruel? Would a prison cook really put a tampon in an inmate's sandwich? Ex-inmates responded, mostly with praise; sure, the show exaggerated some stuff for TV, but mostly, Litchfield was a pretty accurate representation of a real jail. Finally, they said, here was a "prison show" that didn't seem overdramatic or totally unrealistic, like Oz; instead, Orange gave inmates a voice, humanizing them in a way pop culture had so rarely done before.

That is, until they got out. Despite the fact that millions of TV fans (Netflix doesn't release viewing figures, but says that OITNB is its most-watched show) are latching onto a show that is sympathetic to prisoners, many former inmates still face discrimination from those they know, both in the workforce and at home. And, for plenty of them, especially those without access to an organization like Fortune Society, their post-prison options are limited. Twelve states have signed on to Ban the Box, which prohibits companies from asking about applicants' criminal histories early in the hiring process, but, in the rest of the country, a person's time in jail could — and does — affect their chances of finding employment, making perception even more important. Many former inmates, faced with one failed attempt to secure a job after another, become unable to support themselves, and often end up back in prison. "People think [the recidivism rate is so high] because 'they're not trying, they’re lazy, they think everybody owes them,' and that’s not correct," Patty says, adding that the lack of rehabilitation programs offered in prison hinders inmates' abilities to prepare for a world outside jail. Ex-inmates "don’t come out with just prison as a stigma," Patty says. "They have other barriers as well — substance abuse, childcare issues, no GED — a lot of times, they just don't have the direction."

Adds Vilma*, who was imprisoned twice and now works with the Fortune Society, "My family loves me, but it wasn’t enough. I needed more support from others."

Vilma applied for several jobs when she was released seven years ago, but the moment an employer heard she was in prison, "the interview changed totally." Eventually, she says, somebody finally told her, "I'll give you a shot," but for a long time, she spiraled, feeling like "there was nothing out there," she says, a truth reaffirmed by the prison system. "You're told, '48 hours, and we'll see you back here,'" Vilma says.

And, indeed, that's exactly what TV audiences have seen watching OITNB from home — remember Taystee's (Danielle Brooks) brief time out of prison, only to return, desperate and resigned, a month later for violating her parole? “When you get out, they be up your ass like the KGB," Taystee says during Season 1. "Curfew every night. Piss in a cup whenever they say… Minimum wage is [a] joke. I got part-time work at Pizza Hut and still owe the prison $900 in fees... everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone."

"[Orange Is the New Black] shows that life doesn’t end just because you’re behind bars."

The incredible lack of resources is only one problem plaguing ex-inmates. Even if one manages to thrive post-prison, discrimination will continue to hover over them. Julie*, who spent four-and-a-half years in prison before being exonerated by The Michigan Innocence Clinic, says that even with a show like OITNB airing on TVs, ex-inmates, even those proclaimed innocent like her, are still viewed with hesitation, if not outright disdain, by those who discover their pasts. “I can’t say I’ve encountered anybody who’s watched the show after they’ve known me and had a different [reaction]," she says. “Unfortunately, even though I was exonerated, I don't receive the applause, if you will, from the general public."

After she was cleared in 2010, Julie began applying for jobs, attaching to her resume a letter written by the Innocence Clinic that explained the circumstances surrounding her criminal history and how it shouldn't affect her employment. Yet Julie was turned down for each job she applied to, even if the letter wasn't brought up. So, after a few years of rejections, she decided to stop attaching the letter, and "ironically, that's when job opportunities started opening up for me." "A lot of people are close-minded," she said. "I still carry that stigma, if you will."

Yet even once she secured a job in 2013, working with a parish, Julie found that her criminal background — despite her exoneration — still colored her image. When, recently, she chose to divulge her history to the pastor, taking him out to lunch and giving him a detailed file on her arrest and exoneration, his reaction was one of fear. "He said, 'You know, Julie, you might want to keep this between us, because I don’t want any of the parishioners to be concerned about their children,'" she remembers, adding that she'd given him every possible detail about her, “and that’s what he comes back with, unfortunately."

Federal law forbids companies from discriminating based on applicants' criminal records, but, as Julie and the others can attest, even now — when shows like OITNB have put former inmates in a positive light — that doesn't mean it doesn't still happen. Many companies, though, say otherwise. Tama McWhinney, an employee for Motorola, says, "Motorola Solutions has long been committed to diversity in its hiring practices and recruiting the very best talent from a variety of backgrounds." Still, as far as whether or not OITNB has actually influenced a change of opinion, Sean, a worker at PetSmart, says that his company's "policies and procedures haven't been impacted by any movie or show."

For some former inmates like Julie, though, telling their employers late in the game about their history has become the go-to method of dealing with possible criticism. "After they’ve learned they’ve been dealing with one for however long it’s been, the stereotypes are broken," says Patty, who's worked on-and-off in employment services for eight years. "Usually, once I can get somebody to hire one, it opens up their eyes... Suddenly, you know what? It ain’t such a big deal anymore.”

Besides, she says, ex-inmates often make the best employees, thanks to the fact that they're often filled with "so much gratitude" for being hired, and that they've often spent years working similar jobs in prison, just for a lot less money. "You were already doing the work for 10 cents an hour," Patty says. "Think how much harder you’re gonna work now."

Adds Vilma, "We all need second chances."

Jesse Grant/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Piper Kerman, whose memoir inspired OITNB, can certainly attest to that. Since her release, she's become an advocate for female inmates, serving on the board of the Women's Prison Association and testifying at hearings about controversial prison policies. She's earned her success, but without her innate privilege and pre-prison advantages — a good education, work experience, strong communication skills — she might not have been granted the opportunities she's been given. Still, that doesn't mean she shouldn't be applauded for her achievements, or that inmates without backgrounds like her don't also deserve to have doors open for them.

That's one area where OITNB is making a difference. The series' nuanced, fair portrayal of female inmates has been hailed as its greatest strength, and as the series gains in popularity, more and more people are beginning to understand that, more often than not, a person's crime is not their defining characteristic. Though this doesn't mean that former inmates can now easily find work or avoid discrimination, it does mean that the public's greater understanding could begin to set progress in motion. "There’s a little more curiosity, a little more compassion [since the show aired]," says Summer**, one of the only two Ohio women ever exonerated through The Innocence Project, who says Orange Is the New Black has given curious friends an educational tour of "what it was like to me be on a daily basis."

Adds Patty, "It shows that life doesn’t end just because you’re behind bars."

Before the series, Patty says, people were "always scared to ask" her questions about her time in prison. Now, OITNB has "opened their eyes" to the reality of prison, as well as the seemingly obvious, but often forgotten, fact that most inmates are just people who've made poor choices, albeit on a "different level." "What somebody went through to get to where they got to [prison] is not an excuse, but it makes it a little easier to understand me,” Patty says. Adds Vilma, "the crime is not who we are – it’s what we did.”

The show is only in its second year, but many former inmates hope to see it continue, for reasons both entertaining and educational. And if the writers need help developing those stories, she'll be the first to volunteer. "I'd love to consult for them," she says. "the more information they get from the more different types of people, the more thoroughly they could harness these issues.”

After all, she says, "I have eight years worth of stories to tell."

*Some sources for this story asked that their first name be used only.

**Summer asked that her name be changed for this story.

Images: Netflix