5 Times Orange Is the New Black Gets It Right on Prisoner Rights

Out of the ashes of burning Cheetos, the new season offers lessons in democracy, compassion, and humanity.
OITNB prison reform.jpg

This season is all about revolution.

Photo from Jojo Whilden / Netflix. 

If, like me, you’ve finished the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, you’re probably in awe of the power its characters harbor behind bars. This season is all about revolution.

(Spoiler alerts galore below.)

The show, created by producer and writer Jenji Kohan (Weeds) and based off Piper Kerman’s best-selling memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison, is set in Litchfield Penitentiary, a fictional woman’s prison in upstate New York. Season 5, which came out on June 9, isn’t really about Piper’s character though. She takes a backseat as the show’s writers let OITNB’s real stars shine: its brown cast.

And they get it right.

The inmates have rebelled, taking over the prison and holding guards hostage until the state or MCC, the private corporation that owns Litchfield, meets their demands for better living conditions and justice for their friend Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley, The Handmaid’s Tale), whom a prison guard killed last season.

OITNB deserves credit for continually shining a light on the injustices of the prison industrial complex—especially through its character Tasha Jefferson, better known as Taystee (Danielle Brooks, Angry Birds Movie) this season.

Here are five notable moments from the 13 episodes when prisoners got real about their rights—and their humanity.

1. When they whip up a list of demands in a democratic fashion.

Prisoners quickly realize that this riot is the perfect moment to make some requests, especially Taystee, who is mourning Washington. The two were inseparable, and her death arguably impacted Taystee the most.

She is most concerned with holding the alleged murderer responsible, but her friends remind her that unity is key. So they gather concerns from different incarcerated women and tally them up.

Justice for Washington makes No. 9 of the prison’s 10 demands. “To whom it may concern,” the document begins, “ we, the inmates of Litchfield, are human beings.” (Season 5, Episode 3)

2. When Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) reminds Taystee that Judy King (Blair Brown, Fringe) can’t speak for them.

Think of King as OITNB’s Martha Stewart. She’s a rich, white lady doing time for tax evasion but used to host a cooking show. The media outside the prison? They’re there for her.

So when prisoners decide they need to address the media to clear up any speculation and make their intentions clear, they initially think King would be the right face to put forth. That is, until Watson reminds them that King had enough privilege and money to live relatively lavishly behind bars, far from most prisoners’ experience. She’d be presenting a false picture of prison if she presented their statement.

Instead, Taystee does the talking. “Our fight is not with Judy King,” Taystee emphasizes. “Our fight is with a system that don't give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands.” (Season 5, Episode 5)

3. When Taystee gathers all the “blood Cheetos”—and burns them.

So remember the guard hostages? The idea is that, once the state or MCC meets their demands, the prisoners will let them go. On that demands list is Flaming Hot Cheetos and Takis (along with tampons and more nutritious food), which

the governor sent over in boxes. But internet access and a proper GED program are also on that list. Once the prisoners realize that the snack delivery is meant to distract them into giving up on other demands, Taystee and her friends hunt down every bag of chips in Litchfield and burn them outside in front of all the cameras. “We want to be muthafuckin’ taken serious,” Taystee shouts.

Talk about revolution visuals. (Season 5, Episode 6)

4. When another group of prisoners models compassion toward a prisoner who conspired with a guard.

During the riot’s chaos, some inmates rise above what the world might expect from them.

When Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning, Hustle & Flow), a prisoner known for her former meth life, gets herself into trouble for freeing her boyfriend guard, her colleagues want to punish her. The scene involves a long speech in which Doggett reminds her peers that the legal system already treats them poorly—must theirs do the same? “If y’all think that I deserve to be thrown up in the ‘poo poo’ or whatever, then fine.” Doggett says. “That makes you no better than them. You know, that's really sad because they suck.”

So instead of throwing her into a port-a-potty, as originally proposed, they make her distribute water as community service. (Season 5, Episode 6)

5. When Taystee sits down to negotiate.

Power rests in truth.

When the state and MCC finally send in the previous warden to negotiate with the prison’s women, Taystee is ready.

As the former warden gives a spiel about Litchfield’s budget limitations, Taystee is prepared with copies of the budget. She points out all the money MCC does have, setting in motion the path for what is nearly a successful negotiation.

The state is willing to meet just about all the prisoners’ demands—well, all except Taystee’s main concern: justice for her friend Washington. The state promises improved healthcare and new, properly trained guards, but there is no promise to put the guard who killed Washington behind bars.

And that’s real. Holding law enforcement accountable for the deaths of people of color rarely happens. (Season 5, Episode 8)

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.