How 'Watered-down Fiction' Can Act as a Primer to Hardcore Reality


Sir Trevor McDonald

Americans love reality TV.  There are a few shows that give viewers a glimpse of the “inside” life of prisons but I doubt the majority of Americans watch these shows or would even choose it when given a choice with CSPAN.  Who wants to see the gory behind-the-scenes details of our toughest prisons?  That’s too real.  Instead, viewers prefer the sugar-coated entertainment of shows like Orange is the New Black and don’t realize how real the pain and terror can be inside America’s prisons.  However, despite its script and watered-down representation of prison life, fictional Orange is able to give audiences a dose of real life, gritty America.


Our society puts great stock in authenticity these days; from organic foods, to “less is more,” to the glorification of “being yourself” as the perpetual best policy we delude ourselves with thinking we just naturally pursue truth. However, when we enter our little worlds of entertainment and dream, we sometimes allow the fiction to mask the biting reality that surrounds us.  We, as Americans, wish we could fix our country’s social problems — inequality, crime, and poverty.  Yet, we don’t like studying these issues in order to better understand and fix them.  We like to pretend that they don’t exist and allow their softer, fictional representations to rock us to sleep at night.  Why?  These problems aren’t pretty.  In fact, they are ugly, depressing, and, bottom line, they scare us.

Orange is the New Black is “edgy,” it has some funny writing, decent actors, and offers a unique premise compared to the myriad of crime shows and comedies on today.  The setting is a women’s prison? Unique.  Audiences are allowed to enjoy the warm moments of Orange, but we should never forget their real-life basis, the “reality” behind the fiction. (There really is a Piper who went to prison!)


The premise of the show (women surviving in prison) and the issues that Orange unearths in some of its episodes (acceptance, class and racial inequality) are ideas that we as individuals need to recognize and face head on.  The first step is for some of us to admit they exist.


I read an article last week that highlighted what life is really like in a high-security lock up. The subject interviewed in the article is journalist Sir Trevor McDonald who visited some of America’s prisons. In his distinguished broadcasting career, McDonald has reported from the front lines of war and has interviewed numerous world leaders and figures. However, despite his real-life experiences in far-flung, war-torn, and violent locations, he admits that a visit to two women’s prisons has continued to haunt him. He “can’t forget” the time he spent with inmates at The Rockville Correctional Facility and Indiana Women’s Prison.

Let me articulate this statement in another way… McDonald, who has interviewed murdering dictators like Saddam Hussein, who has seen death and war, is haunted by his visits to two American women’s prisons.  Digest that for a minute.

It is that bad. That horrific. Prison is a scary, alien world to outsiders. Most people don’t want to know what madness goes on within their walls.


When in my last article I wrote, “criminals are removed from their underworld wars and are transplanted into prison battlefields,” it was an understatement.


McDonald’s description of meeting women who shot people in the face without flinching, killed their children, and set homes on fire to murder entire families, is chilling. There are no Christmas pageants or happy moments like Orange portrays. One woman has spent the last 5 years in solitary confinement. (Compare that to Piper who was alone for just a few hours.) Women who give birth in prison do it while shackled to a bed. Degrading?  Yes. Necessary? Depends on who the inmate is, I guess. These new mothers must have escorts when they move around the prison with their babies because they might be attacked by other inmates.  One inmate has been in prison for 38 years.

These are the women who fill the high-security buildings of America’s prison system. Some of these inmates started in places like Litchfield and made the jump to some of the most notorious prisons in the country. Piper is just in pre-K at Litchfield; imagine the horror of 1st grade.

As long as viewers don’t allow themselves to get carried away by Orange’s jokes and one-liners and recognize the actual existence of places like Rockville Correctional and Indiana Women’s Prison, I think Orange could be an introductory vehicle to those of us who like to pretend the world is all rainbows and butterflies. These people need to take a look outside, take a page out of a fictional show, and learn about the real world. They need a wake up call!


In the words of Piper Chapman, “Bitches gots to learn” [about the real world].


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