True, OITNB wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention if the protagonist wasn’t an attractive, blond white woman. The damage done by the private prison industrial complex and America’s vengeful, destructive approach to criminal justice existed long before a nude Piper Kerman squatted and coughed to show she didn’t have any contraband concealed in her lady crevices.
None of this escapes me. But unlike Allison Samuels, a writer whose work I respect, I enjoy the show with no hesitation or regret. (Her story from 2013 is popping up all over my FB feed today, thus this post – which is sort of relevant given the weekend rumor that the show has been canceled. It has not.)
Why doesn’t Samuels indulge in the delight that is OITNB? She explains here on The Daily Beast:
The answer is easy: I’m simply not entertained by shows that feature large numbers of black people exiting, entering, or already in prison….
Until the current criminal-justice system is reformed and states begin spending as much money on early education and inner-city schools as they do to build more and more prisons, I’ll find my entertainment elsewhere.
This brings to mind a favorite saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. Maybe for some viewers, OITNB is their teacher, their introduction into criminal justice reform.
Maybe they missed “Oz,” or “The Wire,” or didn’t read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Maybe they weren’t aware of how racially discriminatory the justice system is. Maybe they needed to see a female interpretation of criminal justice to connect with the subject. Maybe they’ll vote differently after the seeds planted by this show take root. Maybe they’ll stop someone who makes a joke about transgender women after watching Laverne Cox. Or maybe they’ll consider the back stories that every incarcerated person has, just as the second season is exploring the pasts of key characters.
Or maybe, curiosity piqued, they’ll search for and find the Brennan Center’s economist Oliver Roeder’s column that references OITNB and reports that, “Since 1980, the incarceration rate for men increased over 230 percent, while the rate for women increased 518 percent.” And maybe they’ll deduce that this pattern is only made worse by laws like this, making Tennessee the first state to allow prosecutors to go after women who used drugs during their pregnancy. The first woman was arrested under this insane law just days ago.
Samuels’ principled stance to avoid OITNB is one she’s free to take, of course, but it’s an unnecessary choice.