Your Dose of Pop: #OITNB, A Tale of Two Pipers

By Melissa Franqui

Source: Drug Policy Alliance

“Your Dose of Pop” is DPA’s contribution to a balanced media diet. We generally disseminate serious news about the serious disaster that is the drug war. However, a good deal of public opinion is shaped by the happenings in entertainment and culture, which makes them worth commenting on. Story ideas are always welcome. You can submit them here.

Here’s the latest skinny.

This week, Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, joined DPA’s asha bandele for a vibrant Telephone Town Hall in which she movingly spoke to the heart of issues that impact women who are incarcerated.

Speaking deeply on the power of the personal narrative, sentencing reform, prison abolition and the decimation of families, Kerman says, “The impact on mothers and children and families – of female incarceration – is seismic. So it is a devastating tragedy for a family when they lose a father into prison or jail, but we know, the data shows, that when the mom gets locked up that her kids are five times more likely to go into foster care… And the dissolution of those families is a tragedy for each and every one of those individuals involved.”

Reflective and exceptionally knowledgeable about criminal justice policy, the Piper we met differed from the “Piper” we’ve come to both love and hate on the hit Netflix series. For more with the real Piper and asha, please click here for the full one-hour interview.

The new season of Orange is the New Black, which was released earlier this month, was a bit bizarre, to say the least. But like most devotees, I dutifully refrained from making any plans last weekend, and shut myself in to binge-watch the latest happenings at Litchfield’s federal penitentiary for women.

Lighter in tone from the second, the humor is largely driven by Piper’s delusions as a used panty-smuggling queenpin. However, some more serious issues were raised.

This season’s discussion-prompting storylines included incarcerated mothers, pregnancy in prison, lack of physical and mental healthcare, transphobia and prison rape. Additionally, the personified villains in the first two seasons, like the underhanded Alex Vause and treacherous Vee, are not as distinguishable this time around.  This season, aside from Piper’s odd and nefarious undoing, we see a much more nuanced evil actor: the brutal and dehumanizing privatization of the Litchfield prison by an inept and heartless corporate conglomerate.

Make no mistake about it – Jenji Kohan, creator of another infamous female driven narrative, Weeds, offers problematic characterizations and under-representations of women in prison for mass entertainment consumption.  This season we learn that Norma kills her cult-leading husband by pushing him off a cliff, while last season, no one would ever think that cancer patient Rosa was once a notorious bank robber.

As intriguing as these backstories are, in reality, we know that six in 10 women in federal prison are there for nonviolent drug law violations.

Nevertheless, no other television series has propelled the issue of women and incarceration to the forefront of mainstream discussion and incited advocacy for reform like OITNB.  Board member of the Women’s Prison Association, Piper Kerman notes, “Harshly punitive drug laws and diminishing community mental health resources have landed many women in prison who simply do not belong there, often for shockingly long sentences.”

We thank the real Piper for her continued advocacy and for leveraging her celebrity to bring women’s issues to the table of prison reform. As we see in one of the most accurate moments at the end of season three when busloads of new “inmates” are shuffled into Litchfield, and knowing that there are more than one million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system, amplifying the awareness of this devastating crisis and national disgrace is of the upmost urgency.

Melissa Franqui is the communications coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.

 

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