The breakage below the surface — “Orange is the New Black” gives a glimpse into America’s broken prison system

After a year of waiting, pleading and agonizing, season five of “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB) is finally here. That’s right, your favorite prisoners are back for a fifth season just as intense as its predecessors.

Since its inaugural season in 2013, the show has gained attention for its addictive, yet realistic portrayal of the U.S. criminal justice system. Contrary to primetime television, OITNB features butch lesbians, a transgender character played by a transgender actress, brown faces, black faces and even wrinkled faces. Though all of the characters are diverse by all means, they somehow manage to work as a cohesive unit.

If you watch the show, chances are that you know it is based on a true story. In the original novel written by Piper Kerman, Kerman details her experiences of her sentence in a way that brings to light many controversial topics. Though some of the aspects of the show are dramatized, there are many very real issues at play. Issues such as correctional officer (CO) power, treatment of LGBT inmates, mental health treatment, overcrowding and policy structure, and the overall concepts behind for-profit prisons are just a few of the issues touched on throughout the series.

The U.S. has had the highest incarceration rate in the world for the past decade, with a 500 percent increase in the past 30 years. With over 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, prisons are scrambling to accommodate all of their prisoners. This is one of the focuses of season three, as Litchfield begins to transition into a for-profit prison. The prisoners face overcrowded living spaces, in addition to strict regulations on activities, meal times and bathroom usage. The transition of more prisoners into Litchfield also brought about extended issues of race and CO treatment of female prisoners. The season highlighted some of the disproportion seen in many prisons across the U.S., as nearly 37 percent of inmates are black and 33 percent are Hispanic.

One of the most intriguing parts of the show is the journey into the individual inmate’s pre-prison stories. These flashbacks provide a unique perspective into the characters’ personalities and individual backgrounds. Most importantly, these flashbacks cast a humanizing effect onto the audience, making them relatable and allowing a viewer to sympathize with the character’s story. Additionally, these stories allow for an integrated connection with the viewer into the United States criminal justice system. More than anything, this aspect teaches us that every inmate has a story beyond the one that takes place inside the prison walls.

Other prison shows such as “Law and Order” or MSNBC’s “Lock Up” often focus on catching the “bad guys” or disproportionately highlighting maximum security cases. These shows also include a majority of white cast members, though this does not speak to typical prison culture.

What sets OITNB apart from other shows is that it truly speaks to many truthful aspects of prison culture that viewers would otherwise not know. The show brings to light many issues that are mostly unnoticed by everyday citizens. As a result of OITNB’s sensationalism, there have been many talks of reform among the U.S. criminal justice system. The overall reform of everyday issues facing prisoners is something that should be valued in order to prevent inmates from returning to prison after their release.

Olivia Heersink can be reached at or on Twitter @heersinkolivia


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