06/30/2014 07:18 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Why We Need to Talk About OITNB's 'Crazy Eyes'


Without a doubt, Suzanne Warren, aka Crazy Eyes, is one of the most powerful characters on Orange Is the New Black. Both in Season 1 and the recently-released Season 2, Warren consistently earns her place as one of the most poignant (and entertaining) inmates at Litchfield.

See, Warren isn't exactly the picture of sanity. Her "crazy eyes," pattern of explosive behavior, borderline stalking of Piper and beatdown of Poussey, among other things, have earned her visits to the psych ward and a distinct reputation around the prison. While many of the inmates exhibit less-than-sane behavior (understandably, it's prison), Warren is a different case. Through a little insight into her childhood, interviews with SIS, and self-harming tendencies, it's clear that her mental health issues are not caused by being imprisoned -- just greatly exacerbated.

Warren is a particularly important addition to the cast of Litchfield characters, because she represents the slew of mentally ill inmates that litter our prison systems. As she is especially vulnerable to violence, manipulation, and fright, so are all too many inmates wasting away among feces-filled showers and itchy bedspreads. In 2006, it was estimated that over half of all those incarcerated struggled with mental health issues -- adding up to over 12.5 million mentally ill inmates, a number still on the rise.

When it comes to mentally ill inmates, the system is broken. This is a term we hear a lot -- "the system is broken." Prison spending, conflict of interests, unsanitary conditions. It can apply to a lot of things, almost all of which are subtly (and brilliantly) addressed over the two released seasons of Netflix's booming success. When it comes to the imprisonment and subsequent treatment of mentally ill prisoners, Orange Is the New Black all too accurately shows how truly broken the system is.

Over the course of two full seasons, we never once see Warren receiving any kind of rehabilitative psychiatric treatment. The glimpses (and stories) we get of "pysch" are not of a place where sick prisoners receive the help they need, but instead a place of even harsher punishment akin to solitary confinement. In the first season, the inmates refer to it as even worse than 'shu,' and the irony that many prisoners descend into insanity after being put in solitary is not lost on the smarter-than-they-look inmates of Litchfield.

These dramatic conditions do largely reflect what we know about the reality of prison psych wards -- conditions that are well examined by NPR's discussion "Mentally Ill Are Often Locked Up In Jails That Can't Help," which glimpses inside the psych wards at Cook County Jail. One of the most startling features of the women's ward, and one most reminiscent of Orange Is the New Black, is the "quiet room" -- a dark isolation space complete with padded walls, a drain, and walls covered in slurs written in blood.

Though mentally ill inmates flail on the inside, Orange Is the New Black argues that the outside doesn't offer much more hope for rehabilitation. When a senile character becomes a prison liability for wandering off grounds, the administration doesn't even bother sending her to psych. Instead, she is granted "compassionate release" -- bound to be homeless and dead on the streets within weeks. Although sources claim this particular scenario is an overly dramatic interpretation of the very-real compassionate release policy, it's not uncommon to see mentally ill prisoners who've served their time released to the streets without any hope of getting the help they need. When it comes to mentally ill inmates, it seems the system is caught in a bit of a catch-22 -- they're not receiving the assistance they need on the inside, but the outside often presents a similarly poor scenario, and tends to lead released inmates right back into the system. With the shutting of most mental health clinics due to budget cuts, inmates like Warren are left with few options and fewer resources.

In terms of Orange Is the New Black, we are reminded that the point of art is to stimulate conversations grounded in truth -- and the truth is we need to be talking about what Warren says about the situation of psychologically unstable prisoners. Instead of helping those like Warren or Christopher Lopez, a mentally-ill inmate who recently died in the presence of prison caretakers, the system forces those already sick into a downward spiral of mental illness. While we can't directly attribute the attention this issue has recently gotten -- such as the recently-established NYC task force focusing on reducing the number of mentally ill inmates -- to Warren or Orange is the New Black, in this case we can appreciate the ways in which fiction gives us the opportunity to reexamine reality.