On the Corrupting Influence of Power in Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black mixes a lot of serious themes in with all the stories about individual lives and the comedy that the show uses to make its points. The Orange is the New Black theme I want to explore today is power and how it corrupts.

Let’s explore this theme by looking at individual personalities.

Vee can't fool Poussey
Vee can’t fool Poussey

Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) is the most blatantly corrupt user of power. She’s willing to destroy lives without a second thought to maintain her income and her grip on her followers. She recruits people for their weaknesses deliberately, knowing that she’ll want to use that weakness at a later time. Her goal is greed, profit, and purely personal. Her grip on power is not accidental. She works for it.

Figueroa is greedy
Figueroa is corrupt

Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) used her power to steal from the prison system. She didn’t feel she was actually hurting anyone with her misuse of funds. So the prison didn’t have a gym or a classroom – not really a problem, right? She used the money to buy expensive things for herself, but she also used it to promote her husband’s political career and to buy his love. She covered up wrongdoing with lies and rationalizations, but not violence.

Caputo became corrupt almost instantly
Caputo became corrupt almost instantly

Caputo (Nick Sandow) thought he was better than Figueroa. He thought if he could just get her job he would fix all the problems Figueroa created with her embezzlement. Yet his second day on the job he told John Bennett to be quiet about being the father of Daya’s baby and left Mendez in jail thinking the baby was his. He perpetrated this injustice to protect his grip on power. Power corrupts instantly. One day he’s a good guy. The next day he’s part of the problem.

Red's power: lost and found
Red’s power: lost and found

Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) power, when she had it, was almost benign by comparison with the others. Yeah, she starved out Piper for a while, but she didn’t bring in drugs and she didn’t try to cheat anyone. She simply wanted to make life in the prison easier for herself. When she lost power she did something stupid that hurt Gina (Abigail Savage), but it was more of an accident than a disregard for Gina’s welfare. When she thought she could use the greenhouse to regain power she still wasn’t doing anything that hurt anybody. Later, she tried to put an end to Vee but couldn’t go through with it. Red’s saving grace is her weakness.

Pennsatucky wants power for the respect and love it brings
Pennsatucky wants power for the respect and love it brings

Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is a sad case. She gets violent quickly if she feels disrespected. She wants power because it makes her feel respected and loved. When being the poster girl for the anti-abortion movement went bad for her, she latched on to the idea that she could somehow become powerful as a lesbian because of the the lesbian agenda. She’s dangerous, but not very smart.

The thread that connects every story – prisoners and prison officials – is that the quest for power carries with it corruption, lies, manipulation, and frequent disregard for the good of others. The Ghandis, the Mother Teresas, the characters like Poussey (Samira Wiley) who resist corruption – they are an anomaly. Most human beings, when given power, succumb to the need to keep it no matter the consequences to others.

Whatever message Piper Kerman, the original author of the book Orange is the New Black, or Jinji Kohan, the writer of the TV series, had in mind as they wrote, this is one message I get: prison doesn’t work. The current American prison system doesn’t work. One reason why? Power corrupts.

I didn’t even get into Mendez. How about it? Are there other characters you think make interesting points about power Orange is the New Black?

7 thoughts on “On the Corrupting Influence of Power in Orange is the New Black”

  1. Mendez. I actually was feeling so bad for him. You are right, prison must be horrible. But let’s not forget the fact that the prisoners have lost their rights to a normal life by breaking the law badly enough to be imprisoned. Right? This show is brilliant and I can’t wait for more!

    1. I’m not saying the prisoners didn’t break the law. But when an inmate or a guard can bring in drugs and profit from the prisoners plus cover up murders and theft, then the system is broken.

  2. School are awash with drugs too. I had teachers who smoked pot in the parking lot with students. I had teachers who were having sex with students. All these people were ‘free’ and getting paid by the city goverment.

    Corruption is everywhere and that includes prisons.

    Prisons are to PUNISH people. Not give them backrubs.

    Lets remember that the show OITNB is a work of fiction. Piper Kerman said herself in her book that she NEVER witnessed any violence when she was in prison. OITNB is waist deep in violence. Obviouly, drugs, sex, and violence still make for a good tv show.

    1. Tristen, I’m so glad this story veered off in its own direction and is not exactly what Piper Kerman wrote in her book. But I think some of her message about how awful the prison system is and how much it is in need of changing makes it through.

  3. I agree there should be Prison Reform and School Reform and Big Business Reform and Government Reform.

    Did you ever watch the British TV show BAD GIRLS. Women in prison show and much more realistic I think then OITNB. Don’t get me wrong, I love OITNB and I think prisons are a terrible place to be. But if they were resorts then we would all want to be in them.

  4. I think you can get Bad Girls on DVD’s from Netflix. It is very good. The Niki and Helen love story is kinda like Alex and Piper one except that Helen is the Govenor (Warden) in love with a prisoner. Their story only goes for 3 seasons, but the show lasted 8 seasons

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