What ‘Orange is the New Black’ Taught Me

Orange is the New Black cast

Prior to 2014 when I discovered Orange is the New Black, I was completely ignorant about the prison industrial complex and the criminal legal system because I had never personally witnessed a loved one affected by the system (I know, the privilege jumps out). Netflix was still new to me so I hadn’t watched many of the platform’s original series until one of my friends convinced me to watch Orange is the New Black during our study hall period (I basically was never a good student I guess??) and I was instantly hooked from the first episode. At the time of its season one release in 2013, OITNB was one of the inaugural original series in the era of streaming platforms. It was a fresh concept: a 13-hour season based on a true story about the incarcerated women in a correctional facility. Prison reform at the time wasn’t as hot a topic as it is in 2019, so to stream a whole entire series about the humanity and complexity of women in prison was a landmark achievement for both Netflix and creator Jenji Kohan. I had to move past my preconceived notions about prisons and the people who fill them in order to fully immerse myself in the world of Orange is the New Black, but once I did the mental workout, I learned more about this unfamiliar world than I could have ever imagined.

Orange is the New Black mainly opened my eyes to how anyone is capable of committing crimes and ending up in prisons. Incarcerated people are just like the rest of us with the wrong circumstances. The show revealed just how frighteningly unfair the criminal legal system is and that people in prisons– no matter what they’ve done– are human beings too. Something else I learned from Orange is the New Black is that I should never judge people I meet because they could end up being my chosen family. None of the women in OITNB’s Litchfield would have become as close knit as they were without letting their guards down a little and learning to let people in despite where they came from or who they are. After seven season of Orange is the New Black, I’m thankful that a simple tv show made me want to become more involved in the criminal legal system and maybe one day become a public defender so that I can work with women like the ones on the show and help prevent them from incarceration. Looking at the women on the show like they are human beings allows me to practice the same compassion and empathy for real people in correctional facilities and want to help them too.

Of course, OITNB is not without its flaws and weaknesses– one of the main issues being the overwhelming whiteness of the writers’ room that transferred into the destinies of some of the characters of color. It’s no secret that in the year of our lord AndrĂ© 3000 people of color should have the opportunities to craft stories about their own lived experiences and lives without white people being the only ones with seats at the table, but this is where OITNB continued to struggle throughout the seven seasons. When a show with as diverse a cast and story as OITNB has not one nonwhite writer, that’s a problem. And this is the main reason why the show was so offensive in both the murder of Poussey in season 4 and the trauma porn of season 5.

Orange is the New Black— despite its faults– truly was a trailblazing show in this new non-cable era of television. It forced people to examine their own prejudices and stereotypes of people in prisons and realize just how unjust and racist the legal system is and for those effects alone, I’m immensely grateful for the seven seasons on air.