After spending more than six years at the maximum-security York Correctional Institution, I give proper respect to Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan for authenticity as well as being topical, since Season Four of the Netflix series rips its stories from the headlines like Law and Order.
But the new episodes distort realities of life and law in the modern women's prison, namely that the prisoners pay for not only their own mistakes, but everyone else's too.
Here are 10 ways the show gets life in a women's prison all wrong.
1. Hands up. Don't fondle: men and pat down searches.
On the show, men manhandle and search female inmates, so much so that it seems that they are racially profiling them as they move through Litchfield's hallways. The Latina women are "pulled over" to the wall for pat downs a disproportionate number of times, almost like they're black and driving a car in the suburbs.
This isn't allowed under a federal law called the "Prison Rape Elimination Act" or PREA for short. Experts predict that a large number of inmates - both male and female - are victims of some type of trauma. Absent exigent circumstances, no male guard can search the body of a female inmate because physical searches can trigger unwanted responses to past traumas.
This isn't to say that all the guards follow all the rules all the time. I had a male officer pat me down in violation of the rule. To prove to me that he wasn't copping a feel, he used the back of his hand. I didn't feel violated by the search itself. I gave him a hand - har har - for creativity but I was still disturbed by how foolish and poorly trained he was to think that flipping his paw over wouldn't still break the rule against different sex searches.
2. It's curtains for you, sir: men in showers.
In the same vein, it's misconduct for guards to view inmates of another gender when they're undressed. The show serves the superficial with its shots of women exiting the shower in front of Officer Dixon as he stands sentinel for celebrity chef and inmate Judy King. If and when an inmate is naked in front of a correction officer, the only person who gets busted is the inmate.
The cross-gender viewing prohibition in the Prison Rape Elimination Act prevents anyone from watching the opposite sex get in or jump out of the shower. In fact, this is such a priority that the law includes a "knock and announce" requirement that forces staff to make noise and boom: "Man in the room!" so that inmates can cover themselves up to prevent unintentional exposure.
Usually any genital viewing gets flipped on the inmate though accusations that she was exposing herself to the staff and she finds herself without any audience at all in solitary confinement. In Pennsylvania, a guard who was telling women to undress and groping them through their cell doors was fired not for those assaults, but for failing to report how she had displayed herself and victimized him.
No female inmate would have exited any shower nude unless she was looking for a new cell assignment in solitary because getting peeped on is the new flashing.
3. School work: upaid schooling.
Linda from Purchasing reveals just how evil she is when she explains why the Construction 101 course is so good for the prison: "This way we don't have to pay them their eleven cents an hour."
Unlike the course at Litchfield, I know from personal experience that inmates are paid to attend vocational and GED classes in the same way and wage they're paid to work in a prison. No one would ever enroll in correctional education if they didn't pay.
As it is, many prisoners chose to work rather than become educated because some prison jobs pay more than others. But if the school didn't pay anything, no one could afford the prison life and still engage in the most meaningful source of rehabilitation.
4. Sit down for yourself: organizing inmates.
The standards for what constitutes a prison riot are pretty low. After Caputo makes empty promises about bringing back the GED program and getting inmates jobs that don't really exist, the Litchfield ladies start chanting his name in appreciation. That's a riot. Everyone would have been maced.
Organizing inmates in any way, something as minor as passing around a petition, can bring sanctions and other discipline, even time in the hole. Piper's meeting and "task force" would have caused guards to grab their riot gear if it happened in a real prison.
The idea that any prisoners working together is dangerous is nothing new. Almost 40 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States held that prisoners lose their rights to free speech and free assembly when they end up on the wrong side of the razor wire. It's understandable. After all, what's a gang but a collection of organized criminals?
5. The gang's not here: tolerance of gangs.
Gang members don't socialize with the general population. Gang activity in prisons is taken seriously, except they're not called gangs; they're called "Security Risk Groups." Anything related to gang symbols or colors sends administrators into a panic. In my prison, the recreation supervisor confiscated black construction paper because black is a gang neutral - it goes with every other gang color - and most groups use it somehow to display solidarity.
If there's even a suspicion that someone is part of a gang, that solidarity lands her in solitary confinement, at least in many states. As part of a settlement of a lawsuit, the State of California agreed not to house members of gangs or SRG's for extended periods of time in solitary, but a Texas inmate was sentenced to spend his life sentence in solitary because he's the leader of the Aryan Nation. It's best to be a colorless loner in prison.
6. #Thankyou. #Nothankyou: gifts for inmates.
When Director Caputo gives a watch to Taystee, whom he's tapped as his assistant (never), he's breaking prison rules. Anything that isn't sold or made within the prison is contraband. It's contraband-plus if it comes from someone who works there.
When a guard from the prison where I spent more than six years was arrested for sexual assault, the police report noted that he had given the inmate presents like sushi, Ice cream, and chocolate-covered cranberries. This fact alone shows the propriety of gifts to inmates: an officer memorializing this inmate's rape also thought it was necessary to inventory the presents the victim received. And I would bet that the fact that she got these luxuries pissed off more people than the fact that she was sexually abused.
The State of Rhode Island prohibits inmates from receiving gifts even from outsiders in the form of magazines, books and other publications because of the time it takes to review the them for security.
Proper gifts are freely given and freely received. It's no wonder they can't exist in a place where people lose their freedom.
7. That's a badge, not a robe: guards deciding sentences.
While it's true that more time can be added to someone's sentence for crimes committed in prison, in general it's not that much unless it's a murder. Stealing, for instance, is usually ignored. Even escapes, unless it's a biggie like last summer's manhunt for two murderers, don't attach time to people's punishments in big amounts, so Maria Ruiz's three-year consecutive sentence - directed by Captain of the Guards Piscatella - is incredible.
It's dangerous to give guards authority over someone's length of sentence, especially in a privatized prison. A study out of the University of Wisconsin Business School last summer found that guards in private prisons write twice as many disciplinary reports than their public prison counterparts because these bad report cards cause the parole board to deny inmates who have documented history of behavioral problems. The end result is that the inmate serves more time. And earns more money for her jailer. Prisons have less to do with courtrooms than they do casinos - the house always wins.
8. Wrapped too tightly: gum wrappers in prison.
Chew on this: the wrapper isn't as much of a threat inside a prison as its contents; gum is downright dangerous inside. A wrapper is so perilous that its presence can trigger a shakedown where the source of it will be found.
Gum jams up locks and can serve as the mold to make an impression of a key. Send that home and ask someone to make a matching key, and you've got early release, albeit an illegal one.
There's a way to light things without the wrapper. Pencils are allowed in prison so women can easily get one, strip the lead out and insert it into an electrical socket. Any flame that pops out lights the toilet paper as a wick. An inmate might get charged with arson or destroying government property lighting up this way, but she'll be cleared on a minor contraband beef.
9. Prison mixers: racial segregation.
Not all prisons house people of the same race together. The prison where I stayed, for instance, was completely integrated. If an inmate wanted to generate tension based on race, the prison was happy to accommodate her in solitary confinement where no one of any race could bother her.
A lawsuit in California forced the state's Department of Corrections to desegregate its prisons. The Sunshine State was forcing inmates of one race to lock up in their cells while inmates of other races enjoyed recreation.
Prisons function on a principle of equality; any segregation can be construed as preferential treatment. Did you think they would take away prisoners' gum and gifts to let them feel special another way?
10. Stay in your own lane: lockdowns where inmates mingle.
When Litchfield goes into lockdown after guar/hitman Farhid's body is found, inmates saunter into each other's cells and assemble en masse in the chow hall.
Part of this plot is most likely borrowed from a true story of a guard's being killed in New Jersey in 1997. The prison went into lockdown from July 30 to September 30 and prisoners were not allowed to leave their cells or have visits. A judge who decided a lawsuit later filed by the inmates found that they had, indeed, suffered torturous conditions just like solitary confinement during the locked period. Lockdown status at a correctional facility essentially turns the whole place into the hole, even for inmates who did nothing wrong.