Orange is the New Black: Sent to SHU

Two of our favorite characters on Orange is the New Black spend time in the segregated housing unit (SHU) in season 3.

Season 3 spoilers ahead.

According to a recent report on solitary confinement, the practice of solitary confinement is overused and ineffective.

. . . evidence mounts that solitary confinement produces many unwanted and harmful outcomes—for the mental and physical health of those placed in isolation, for the public safety of the communities to which most will return, and for the corrections budgets of jurisdictions that rely on the practice for facility safety.

Nicky

Natasha Lyonne as NIcky in Orange is the New Black

Remember the bags of Vee’s heroin that Nicky hid in the vent in the laundry? Yeah. That heroin. Well, Nicky and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) decide to get it out of the prison. Luschek (Matt Peters) will help them and will sell it in the outside world. They plan to use the tunnel that opens into the greenhouse.

That plan falls through. Nicky gets nervous and moves the bags into a fluorescent light housing in the laundry. It falls out. The girls in the laundry get stoned on it. Luschek gets all the remaining heroin from them, puts it in a toolbox with Nicky watching, and carries it out of the prison.

Nicky saves one tiny bag and sticks it under Luschek’s desk. She can’t bear to let it all go. The laundry girls talk, so Caputo (Nick Sandow) searches electrical. Of course, they find the little bag.

Nicky gets all the blame and is sent to SHU Maximum Security [see comments]. Luschek points the finger at her, and that’s all the proof anyone needs. There is no investigation. Nicky’s just carted off. Luschek is not blamed for anything.

This happens in episode 3. Nicky is gone for the rest of the season. Orange is the New Black just isn’t right without Nicky, you know?

I wish there had been an episode near the end of season 3 where Nicky returned. It would have been good to see the effect on her. Maybe that will happen in season 4.

Sophia

Laverne Cox as Sophia in Orange is the New Black

Motherhood is one of the main themes throughout all of season 3. Sophia’s story as a parent is particularly difficult and touching. Her son (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is doing the teen rebellion thing and she doesn’t know how to help with it. She doesn’t know if he needs mothering or fathering from her. She’s conflicted and upset. Her wife (Tanya Wright) says Michael is out of control.

She tries to help by having him come to the prison more often. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) is trying to see her teen-aged son more often, too. She arranges for him to ride with Sophia’s wife for the visits.

The boys get in trouble. Sophia blames Gloria’s boy. Gloria blames Sophia’s boy. Sophia’s wife stops bringing Gloria’s son to visit.

Tension between Sophia and the entire kitchen staff results in Sophia being targeted with transphobic bullying. It sweeps through the prison like a wave. She’s attacked and beaten up by other black women. They even take her blonde wig right off her head. Dirty fighting, that.

The fight wasn’t Sophia’s fault, but she gets taken to SHU “for her own protection.” Nothing happens to any of the instigators or attackers, although, to Gloria’s credit, she looks really sorry about what happened.

Misuse of Solitary

At least in Sophia’s case, Caputo argues against sending her to SHU. But the for-profit bosses running the prison overrule him. I have heard that putting transgender prisoners in solitary “for their own protection” is a common practice in prisons.

In both cases, SHU was used as a quick answer rather than a solution. In both cases, the person who will suffer the horrors of isolation for who-knows-how-long should have been handled in some other way.

There are documented cases where people are kept in isolation for YEARS. As many as 80,000 individuals may be held in isolation per day in federal facilities alone. “Long-term isolation can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and assaultive or anti-social behavior, result in negative outcomes for institutional safety, and increase the risk of recidivism after release.”

Nicky and Sophia have decent mental health. What if Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) or Morello (Yael Stone) or the paranoid new prisoner Lolly (Lori Petty) ended up in SHU? What about the depressed Soso (Kimiko Glenn)? They would be basket cases when they came out. Or dead.

Piper (Taylor Schilling) did a couple of short stints in SHU in previous seasons, but she had more people working to get her out. What happens when no one is trying to get someone out?

I know Orange is the New Black is TV, not real prison. But I think it brings the injustice and inhumanity of the real prison system into focus for the general public with story lines like these for Nicky and Sophia.

It’s easy to understand why the real Piper Kerman came out of prison and wrote a book. And why she became an activist for prison reform. And why she continues to provide input into this series.

Orange is the New Black Rewatch Binge

June 12 and the release of season 3 of Orange is the New Black is just far enough away to let me rewatch the first two seasons in a cozy binge.

This is what fascinates me: the series starts out with the main story being about Piper, the privileged white woman who ends up in prison. The regular cast members listed are Taylor Schilling, Michael Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Laura Prepon, Michelle Hurst and Jason Biggs. By the second & third episode some of the actors like Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, and Laverne Cox begin to show up as guest stars.

Actors we’ve grown to love from the show such as Dascha Polanco, Selenis Levya and Samira Wiley were listed in the ending credits. They didn’t even show up as guest stars early in the series.

I’m struck by how much of the story of what’s happening in Litchfield Prison has moved away from the white characters and how the minor actors in the beginning like Samira Wiley have moved up to become regulars.

As viewers, we have become attached to characters that we might never have had a chance to like and respond to anywhere else but in Orange is the New Black. It’s brilliant how Jinji Kohan and the other writers let Crazy Eyes and Big Boo and Gloria and Nicky and Morello sneak their way into our hearts by bringing each to the front slowly. Not to mention Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero), Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and many others.

A scene from OITNB

After two years, the most popular characters on OITNB are played by Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks, Lea DeLaria and Laverne Cox. We no longer have to be lead into Litchfield stories by holding hands with someone white. Because of great writing, great acting talent, great personal presence, the most “other” members of the cast have become the default stars on Orange is the New Black. The story and the characters took off like a runaway train with a momentum that has carried us far from the original story in the book by Piper Kerman on which the series was based.

There are still white people in the story. Piper and Alex are still there, Red is still around, Nicky and Morello are still there, all the correctional officers and prison bosses are still there. But Piper is no longer the chief focus. In season 2, when Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) was around, much of the focus was on her and her effect on everyone at Litchfield. We’ll see where things go in season 3, but I’m 100% behind the diversity. I’d love to see one of the Hispanic characters become more known and important.

We’ve accepted the rainbow of characters who inhabit the prison, we care about them all. It’s a act of writing and planning by Jinji Kohan that I admire and respect. Diversity on our TV screens has an effect on the culture. I can’t wait to see how OITNB brings more of it in season 3.

What I’m waiting to see is the day when a black woman or a Hispanic woman or an Asian woman can be the lead character to lead us into a drama like this one.

On the Corrupting Influence of Power in 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?

On Introducing Vee into Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black poster for the character Vee.

Say hello to Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). Notice the dangerous headgear. Notice the deadly serious look in her eyes. Notice the nickname “queen” bestowed on her by the Orange is the New Black team.

Bringing Vee into the prison and into Orange is the New Black was a storytelling decision of brilliance from Jenji Kohan’s and the other writers on this Netflix Original Series.

It was such a juicy part – it gave Lorraine Toussaint a chance to move into Emmy Award territory. Why not give such a juicy part to one of the existing inmates? Someone we already think we know?

Vee and Red
Vee and Red

I have a few ideas about why an outsider, a newcomer, was important to season 2. Vee knew prison. She’d been there before. She knew Red, she knew the power Red used to wield from the kitchen. She knew how to turn prison culture to her advantage, just as she knew how to navigate life outside prison to her advantage.

A strength of season 1, a strength of the writing on this series, is the nuance. The layers revealed about each character in the storytelling, in the flashbacks. Because of that nuance, we thought we knew people.

But we didn’t know people in the way a master manipulator, a psychopathic user of human weakness like Vee knows them.

Vee is pleased with her minions
Vee is pleased with her minions

Vee knows how to spot someone who will be slavishly loyal in return for a glimmer of love, a glimmer of approval. She knows who will respond to family obligations. She knows who will go to the dark side out of a need for power or greed. She knows who will follow without question. She knows who can be tempted by the lure of a longed-for high. She knows who can be bought with bribery, with food, with small gifts.

Just watch Vee manipulate. She takes the sexy foster son she’s always lusted after to bed, then sends him out to be murdered. She comforts Tastee before her foster brother’s funeral by promising to protect her forever. Watch her work Tastee later in the prison when she realizes a piece of cake isn’t enough to win her over. Tastee wants an apology so Vee delivers. Watch her in the bathroom with Gloria where she uses tears to manipulate. Watch her deal with Black Cindy when Black Cindy uses cigarettes to get goodies for herself instead of profits for Vee. Watch her hit Poussey, both literally and figuratively, to keep her from influencing Tastee. Watch her promise friendship to Red and then lock sock her.

Lorraine Toussaint is brilliant in this part. I know I said that already, but damn, it’s worth repeating.

Vee goes into the prison and completely rewrites the culture in a few days. She recruits followers, sets tribes and factions against each other, breaks up friendships, and inflames hatred. She claims power with practiced ease.

She will never love you.
She will never love you.

Vee’s mayhem, Vee’s manipulations, pull back the curtain on all those characters we thought we knew. It gives us new insights. We see flaws, strengths, darkness, beauty in ways that we couldn’t in season 1 when everyone more or less got along. Vee disrupts, she brings an end to everyone just getting along, and personalities are laid bare in the process.

The women in Litchfield are criminals. They did bad things, stupid things, crazy things, violent things. But none of them are evil. Vee is evil. That’s another reason why Vee needed to be someone new to the cast. There was no evil-without-regret character already there.

Vee’s presence moves the story away from Piper. We still have Piper, of course, but her story doesn’t carry season 2 the way it did season 1. Season 2 is about power grabs, and Piper isn’t after power. Because Alex Vause will be back in season 3 in more episodes, Piper may come back into the forefront next season. Or maybe not. This story has taken on a life of its own. The actors, the characters, the chemistry between the actors, the fan response – all of it has carried Orange is the New Black bodily into places Piper Kerman’s original book never went.

So kudos to Jenji Kohan for writing Vee, kudos to Lorraine Toussaint for playing her with such brilliance, and kudos to everyone who got to go deeper and peel away more layers in response to Vee’s presence in the story. Brilliance all around.

A personal note: my nickname is Vee. It’s odd to write about a character named Vee.

Orange is the New Black: A Winner from Netflix

I just finished the last episode of season 1 of Orange is the New Black. It’s a women in prison comedy/drama. My thought as I watched the last few seconds of the stunning season conclusion was, “Please let there be 1000 more episodes of this show.” It’s that good. It’s been renewed for another 13 episodes in season 2, so that only leaves 987 that I’ll be wanting. The first season of 13 episodes runs from September to December in the story of one year in prison, so 3 seasons of equal pacing might be more realistic to expect.

Taylor Schilling
Taylor Schilling gets stripped searched in episode 1

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original, created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds. I loved Weeds and I love Orange is the New Black. Apparently I am a huge Jenji Kohan fangirl. Kohan takes characters who are flawed, vulnerable, maybe a little off, often of questionable moral inclinations and she makes me care about them. Her characters aren’t Hannibal Lector, but they aren’t Mother Teresa either. They fall somewhere in between those two extremes, in a place where most of humanity struggles to get through the day.

Orange is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman. The series is based on the book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. Piper Kerman and her TV self Piper Chapman are blonde, pretty, perfect WASPs who should be successes in life, and who don’t expect to find themselves figuring out how to survive in a prison.

OITNB poster

Other well-known actors appearing in the series include Jason Biggs as Larry Bloom, Piper’s fiancee. Laura Prepon is Alex Vause, Piper’s lover from a decade ago. Alex was a drug smuggler and the reason Piper is in prison all these years later. And, oh yeah, Alex is in the same prison. Kate Mulgrew is Red, an inmate who runs the kitchen in the prison. Pablo Shreiber is a corrupt and cruel guard. Michael Harney plays the prison counselor. Natasha Lyonne is one of the inmates.

OITNB cast
Image via Netflix

This is a big cast, the names I mentioned above are ones you may recognize. I feel like I should list the name of every single cast member because every performance is outstanding. Michelle Hurst, Taryn Manning, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Matt McGorry – I didn’t mean to start listing them, but I can’t help it. And there are more names that should be applauded. Every character in this ensemble has a story, makes a real contribution, and every actor in the ensemble produces brilliant work. The acting is true, believable, powerful and at least 85% of the reason the series is so good. The other 15% goes to great writing. My math must be a little off, because I think there should be some percentage given for directing and costuming and set design and that Regina Spektor song at the beginning of every episode. Well, okay, I’ll say that the acting is at least 50% of the reason why this series is so good.

Can you give an entire cast an Emmy for best supporting actress?

A Few Mild Spoilers

Orange is the New Black is both a comedy and a punch-in-the-gut drama. There are a few laugh out loud moments and some running gags that will make you smile. A favorite running gag was the woman who was crying on the phone next to Piper each time she made a phone call. One scene where everyone in the cafeteria stood up and started dry humping everything in sight had me rolling on the floor.

There were moments of cruelty, fear, pain, and brokenness. There were moments of insight. There were moments of love. There are thieves, drug dealers and murderers – and those are just the people in charge of running the prison. There is fornication, masterbation, revenge, overdosing, insanity, sanity, rage, delusion and denial, pragmatism and surprising beauty. Storylines include race politics, religious politics, prison politics, uses for screwdrivers, Shakespearean recitations, and good hair. In short, this series has multitudes to offer and a cast that is capable of delivering it.

Our pretty blonde WASP princess heroine is afraid of everyone at first but soon finds that the women in prison are just like her. She finds people to respect and admire, and to like, which surprises her a bit. Taylor Schilling goes all out in this part. You can be sure there’s plenty of drama and tension involving in getting from fear to admiration.

There is love and relationship drama. With sex. Within the first 30 seconds of episode 1 we see Piper having lesbian shower sex with Alex and straight bathtub sex with Larry. Seems these two super clean moments were flashbacks to happier times as Piper takes her first prison shower, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Flashbacks are used often to reveal more about the characters. We see into their childhoods, meet the parents (or lack of parents), see the abuse or the quest for drugs, and learn about the crimes that brought each one to the prison.

One thing I liked about the flashbacks was that the actors could look more like we normally see them. In the prison garb, with no makeup, horrible hair, and possibly awful prosthetic teeth it was a little hard to match up actors faces with the images on imdb.com for the cast. (I do have a tendency to look at cast bios and photos while watching a show.) It took me nearly all 13 episodes to figure out that Taryn Manning was the person playing the crazed Jesus-freak character. That was partly because I could never catch her character’s name and partly because she looked so crazy-scary in the role. Damn, was she good, too.

Laura Prepon never looked bad. Not once. She had blonde hair in Are you There, Chelsea?. She’s been a redhead in some shows. She has black hair here and big black glasses. Her hair never seems to be stringy or wild and she doesn’t need makeup to be stunning. Which partly explains why Piper can’t stay away from her and we have the lovers triangle of Piper, Larry, and Alex through most of season 1. Larry, so straight and normal out there waiting in the real world – Alex, so gorgeous as she offers up her very warm body right here inside the walls. What’s a girl gonna do? I cast my vote for team Alex, drug smuggler though she is. Alex seems to love Piper with a beautiful eternal flame that makes poor Larry’s conditional acceptance pretty lame by comparison. If you’ve read the book and know how this all turns out, don’t rain on my team Alex parade, okay?

Netflix and Original Series

Netflix released House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as its first original series. It was superb and I look forward to a second season of that series. Their second attempt Hemlock Grove was so bad I couldn’t watch it. They were 1 for 1 when this series came out, so I was unsure which way it was going to go.

Netflix struck gold once again with Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black. More like this please, Netflix.

Your turn. What do you think about Orange is the New Black?

Image Credits: Netflix.

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