THE BLOG
07/26/2016 05:38 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2017

10 Things That Season Four Of "Orange Is the New Black" Gets Right About Life In Prison

Ansa

Dramatic necessity is usually the culprit when a memoir or true story dices itself up and stitches itself back together in acts, scenes and close-ups for television or movies.

Black is back, orange-style, with some pretty looney scenes. Only someone like me who served more than six years in a women's prison would know that many scenes in Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black aren't plot devices. These things actually happen.

Here's 10 things from the show that, surprisingly enough, occur every day in modern correctional facilities.

1. Deck the hit: guns in prison.

When Correction Officer Thomas "Humps" Humphrey finagles a gun past his fellow guards and eventually watches it get turned on him in the last episode, the scene seemed far-fetched, even to me. Because correction officers go through a metal detector, you probably think that no one could smuggle in a firearm. But almost as if on cue, a guard snuck a gun into a Morris County, New Jersey facility and used it to end his own life two days after Season 4 premiered.

Sometimes they don't need to sneak to pack heat. The State of Nevada allows its guards to carry guns inside its correctional facilities. Nevada corrections leaders have watched homicide result from its gun policy, with guards killing prisoners. Orange Is the New Black's flipped that script by ending the season with Dayonara Diaz holding staff in the crosshairs and watchers wondering whether Season 5 will open with a bang.

2. Maxi's at a minimum: lack of feminine hygiene supplies.

Inside every women's prison, there's feminine famine of sorts. Women can't get the supplies they need. It makes for a messy place. I once saw a dirty maxi pad fall out of a woman's pants because she had worn the same one for longer than a day, even after she changed clothes, and the adhesive had worn thin.

But while most people are taking prison periods seriously now, even enacting ordinances to make sure prisoners have adequate hygiene supplies, this isn't the revolution everyone's making it out to be. The rule that female prisoners should not be denied hygiene supplies was officially codified back in 2010 by the United Nations. Nicknamed the "Bangkok Rules" after the city in which they were enacted, the United Nations said it was a human rights violation not to provide prisoners with supplies necessary for cleanliness.

Most people think lack of tampons and pads in correctional facilities is a financial issue, one that de-prioritizes spending money on them; Litchfield CI's sole male nurse calls them "inessentials" when he informs women at the medication line that there are none left. Having seen this problem up close, I doubt that the lack of period supplies is about cost; with the below-bargain-basement quality of the items, combined with the quantities ordered, I would bet that you're looking at less than a penny per pad.

Prisons like to keep their wards dirty, not filthy enough to be an acute health hazard but coated with enough funk to want shrink away from authority. That's why the famine persists.

3. Sister, can you spare a dime? Prison work assignment shortages.

Overcrowding, combined with austerity budgets, has caused the number of prison jobs to decline. The result is that prisoners can't afford to buy the supplies they need to keep themselves clean.

In the 1980's, numbers of prison work assignments were on the rise because the country's biggest champion of prison labor opportunities, businessman Fred Braun, was connecting companies and correctional facilities often to reduce labor costs. Braun did so well as a prison labor matchmaker that the number of inmates working in prison eventually grew and developed into what scholars call the Prison Industrial Complex.

The lack of jobs for prisoners - at the fictional Litchfield prison and in real life - is a result of the campaign against the Prison Industrial Complex. The State of Colorado lost jobs for its inmates when Whole Foods responded to protests against their use of prison labor by pulling out of correctional enterprise. It's unclear if or how soon those inmates were reassigned to new jobs.

Criticize correctional enterprise at Litchfield if you want, but jobs at "Whispers" shout opportunity for inmates who can't afford to buy soap without them.

4. Defecator detector: finding out who pooped in the shower.

Lorna Morello and Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren try to pry apart the mystery of who's pooping in the shower. Defecating and urinating in a shower isn't uncommon in a women's prison. In fact, everyone in a particular housing area would know when inmate janitors discovered a turd in the drain because it was always reported the same way: "Officer, someone pooped in the shower...again."

It's not snitching; these discoveries have to be reported to staff because the pile had to be cleaned, at a minimum, with bleach that inmates can't access or even a specially-trained biohazard team.

Anything that doesn't get fired into a toilet or flung at a guard is deposited in a prison shower drain somewhere.

Character Angie "Methhead" Rice confessed on the show but usually these suspects slip away because no one can ever catch them in the act. When there's an air of mystery of this type in a prison, you can usually smell it as much as you feel it.

5. Solitary cells are singularly horrific.

The solitary cells that house three main characters in Season 4 - Sophia Bursett, Nicky Nickols and Sister Ingalls - are exactly like the show portrays. You get nothing in segregation. In solitary, you have no pillow, sometimes no sheets and a blanket. You have nothing to read and you become woozy at the lack of human contact. The Guardian ran a series this year showing how torturous alone time can be, complete with a virtual experience of a solitary cell.

When she stumbles through camp upon her return from solitary, Sophia Bursett's face isn't stunned and swollen because she's been butting up against other people - but because she hasn't.

6. Come out, come out, whoever you are: solitary cells hide transgender inmates.

It's a modern correctional challenge to house transgender prisoners not only because they are at a higher risk for sexual assault but because the Prison Rape Elimination Act prohibits 'cross-gender viewing' - meaning staff of one gender seeing an inmate of another gender undressed. Very often, gender identity and biology don't match, so it's unclear who or how these inmates should be supervised and searched. Instead of developing a different method of supervision for transgender inmates, they're placed in solitary confinement a majority of the time.

Their placement in solitary confinement units doesn't solve the problem either since they can be viewed in states of undress - although solitary inmates change their clothes once per week - by opposite gender staff members. In many ways, transgender inmates in solitary prove the discrimination against them just by being there.

7. The traumatized watching the traumatized: hiring veterans as guards.

Linda from purchasing's idea of hiring veterans gave her prison profiteer employer a hiring boon that replaced the old but still somewhat sympathetic correction officers. Approximately 70% of veterans returning home from a tour of duty are initially unemployed.

To attract these unemployed soldiers, the federal Bureau of Prisons has held hiring fairs for them. The armed forces have offered a Military Occupational Specialization in guarding prisons since 2011 because military training and the prison industrial complex are suited for each other because of the organizational structure of prisons.

While this might seem like a good idea from an economic perspective and interpersonal angle, hiring veterans in correctional facilities can be problematic from a psychological perspective, as the show demonstrates.

Approximately 30% of the veterans treated in Veterans Administration hospitals have diagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Link 17) and it is widely held that the real number of PTSD sufferers who served our country is much higher.

Add in the fact that prisoners have extensive trauma histories, then hiring veterans isn't something that should be done without extensive training and employee assistance programming to prevent two traumatized populations from antagonizing each other.

8. Getting Your Learn On: No Prison GED's

It's been a running joke - or social commentary - that there is no GED program at the fictional prison. First, the funds for it were embezzled by Deputy Warden Natalie Figueroa and then Director of Human Activity Caputos' educational proposal gets twisted into a chain gang that never leaves prison grounds.

The 2014 switch from traditional testing to computerized testing for all equivalency degree programs has caused prison students to become the only segment of the academic world where graduation rates are dropping.

9. Nothing happened: appropriate, platonic mentoring.

Sam Healy, the shockingly socially inept social worker goes all Mother Hen on Lolly Whitehill, the show's incarnation of the hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people behind bars. It's sweet, even funny, since what Healy sees as manifestation of her disease - the hacking up of the corpse in the prison garden - is reality, a truth that the good counselor never thought to check. I would venture that Healy's investment in her would have made Lolly's reentry into society much easier...if she ever gets out.

Of course, their connection violates a basic prison rule that prohibits "undue familiarity" between prison staff and an inmate. The media offers many images of lecherous prison guards and nasty, abusive ones who caused prisoners to pull the plug. You never hear human interest stories of how an officer mentored an inmate and made her flip a switch and change her behavior, but it happens all the time.

No one can know about these connections, as pure and beneficial as they are, because there can be no relationship between staff and inmates, as innocent and non-sexual as it may be. When it comes to prisoners and guards, the reigning theory is: you gotta keep 'em separated.

10. Go ahead: guards instigating fights between inmates.

In the eleventh episode, "People Persons", Humps encourages, even orders, inmates to fight each other. Crazy Eyes ends up beating her erstwhile girlfriend, Maureen Kukudio, within an inch of her life while the officer watches and laughs. 

It seems extreme but it's actually almost common. Similar setups have been reported in in California, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and most recently Florida. It almost happened to me in Connecticut.

When a mentally-ill, violent cellmate of mine (she was actually incarcerated for puncturing the lung of another inmate with a knife when they were friends on the outside) threatened to kill me to another woman, I was brought in front of a lieutenant who was posted in the back of the dining hall where I worked. When the reporting inmate explained how she had witnessed the threat, the lieutenant shrugged and told me:
 
"You two should just bang out."
 
I turned his idea down as politely as I could.

"Sorry. I don't bang."