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Rockville Correctional Facility

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America’s criminal justice system can easily become an abstraction for those who believe they are not directly affected by its significant economic and human impact. A 2010 report found that 7.1 million Americans were under the supervision of the adult corrections system. Nevertheless, many Americans rely on media to inform their impression of the criminal justice system, particularly incarceration.

Admittedly, television is filled with crime and police dramas, which focus on the procedures of investigation. The viewer rarely considers the fate of a convicted individual following their sentence of incarceration. Documentaries portend to offer a window into the gritty and violent world of prison culture. The shocking material confirms the fear many have of prison, but viewers can easily dismiss the extreme content given the absence of any emotional connection.

A new original series Orange is the New Black has received attention because the show provides a powerful and personal look at our criminal justice system and life in prison. The Washington Posts’ Dylan Matthews recently declared it, the best TV show about prison ever made.”

The series is based on the memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The show follows a character Piper Chapman who, like Kerman, is a white middle-class woman who leaves her comfortable life in New York City to serve a 15-month sentence for a drug trafficking in an upstate NY federal prison. Chapman’s relationships with other inmates allow the viewer to understand some of the issues faced by incarcerated individuals, including isolation from family, fear of violence, abuses by staff, and the detrimental use of solitary confinement.

As the season progresses, viewers learn through flashbacks what brought each character to the facility. The series gives perspective on the difficulties of reentry, particularly in finding long-term housing and employment. The characters and their stories are ones not often found on television or other mainstream media. As a review for The Nation notes, there is something to be said that the most racially and sexually diverse show of 2013 is set in a women’s prison”

Orange is the New Black works best when it respects the humanity not only of Chapman, but all of her fellow inmates. The story does not shy from the decisions that led to their incarceration nor does it absolve of responsibility. While it gives viewers the chance to observe prison life from a physical distance, the emotional impact is immediate. Hopefully this can facilitate a larger conversation about the state of American criminal justice and the need to support policies which support reentry services and reform sentencing for non-violent offenses.