June 8, 2015
Orange is the New Black vs. Real Prison
Certainly most people watch the made-for-NetFlix original series “Orange is the New Black” for entertainment, but I’m not alone having watched it for “training and education” purposes before self-surrendering to prison, seeking a modern glimpse of federal prison culture. The show is a benchmark for many people heading to prison. Several inmates who have self-surrendered here at McKean have asked around wondering how life compares to the show. In addition to research, I also watched it to have something to reference when communicating with my wife upon confinement in this environment.
“Orange is the New Black” is based on the book about the main character’s real life experience. Like the show, prison is both predictable and unpredictable. What the show portrays is entirely possible, but it may or may not be typical for the facility where you are heading or where a loved one you know is confined, if either of those scenarios apply. Actual prison life can be worse than what you see in the show, and there are also things that are less dramatic as well. I will point out some differences as I perceive them, hopeful that sharing my observations will prove helpful to anyone seeking a sanity check on what it is actually like compared to this Hollywood adaptation.
I offer the following “top 20” observations comparing real prison life with the NetFlix series:
- Just like real prison stories, the show is not for kids!
- The security level of the institution in the show is unclear, but the nature of inmates participating in much of the functionality of running the facility is typical of a Federal Prison Camp (FPC) like where I am confined. Security levels control the environment. My prison consultant, Justin Paperny of www.FederalPrisonAdvice.com and www.Etikallc.com offers some detailed YouTube videos describing each of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) security levels from Camps all the way up through U.S. Penitentiaries. -FPC McKean is attached to a “medium” Federal Correctional Institution(FCI), which means the main facility here is a very serious place surrounded by layers of fencing and razor ribbon. In the Camp, we do not have controlled movements, which is similar to life as it is portrayed in “Orange is the New Black.” Inmates therefore have a fair amount of discretion when and where they can move about the facility, including going outside much of the time. Higher security level FCI’s like the “medium” across the street have controlled movements which only allow inmates to move about designated areas during the first 10 minutes of each hour, and then they must remain there until the next movement period.
- The expectation of modesty is far greater in real prison, and the nudity portrayed in the show seems to be an exaggeration, particularly for lower security level facilities like FPC’s.
- The “chow line” is far less political in nature than what the show portrays. While the quantity of food is limited and the quality is accurately described, starving out an inmate is highly unlikely. Officer’s supervise the chow line quite diligently. Even if food was somehow restricted to an individual by the inmates serving it, its possible to survive from commissary supplies. Many inmates actually choose to cook their own meals from commissary, and its pretty amazing what they create in the microwaves that are available in the common living areas. The cost of buying a lot of food from commissary can add up quickly, however, estimated to be about $10 per day to remain healthy. That is a big number when you are only making around $12 to $40 per month, but nobody should be starved out of prison like the show portrays, particularly if you have some financial help from the outside.
- Fowl language is portrayed fairly accurate in the show. I would suggest its actually quite a bit worse in real prison life.
- The racial divides that are prevalent in the show are definitely present, but they are not as active in lower security level institutions. My good friend here is African America (I’m white). He has introduced me to many of his friends, and they all seem to be cool with me The reverse is true regarding racial divides as you go higher in security levels. At a “medium” or higher, it can be pretty extreme. The recreation areas, especially the TV rooms, can get quite territorial. Respect is key!
- Compared to the show, there seem to be more people in real prison who are working to better themselves. For example, I am working-out in the gym 4 times per week with a certified personal trainer. Sweat, which is his real name, has been in prison for 21 years and has seen the inside of nearly every security level in the BOP system. He gained his official certification as a personal trainer a little while back, and he will leave here in several months with plans to start his own business. I have no doubt he will be hugely successful, as he is exceptionally talented, including expertise in nutrition. He helped one guy here lose well over 200 pounds. There are other examples as well. The show portrays very little effort toward betterment on individual levels, and the number does seem to be fairly low as an overall percentage of the population, but there are some inmates who are doing some pretty amazing things while confined. I have big plans for myself.
- There is a fair amount of compassion and an attitude of desire to help each other out in real prison, which does come across to a certain degree in the show as well. People who are struggling with personal issues do find help from people who understand what they are going through. Inmates have a sense when another inmate needs a boost, and they aren’t afraid to reach out. That has been my experience. Additionally, apologizing to other inmates is acceptable if you make a mistake, which is unlike the experience Piper had when she tried to apologize to Red in one of the early episodes of the show.
- The bathrooms in prison are similar to what the show portrays, at least at Camps. They are sort of like public locker rooms. All of the stalls have doors. Everyone carries a spray bottle of disinfectant to clean the toilets each use, and the “orderlies” also clean the bathrooms daily. They remain surprisingly clean as a result of everyone’s efforts to clean-up after themselves. The shower floors are the exception, and the mandatory use of shower shoes in the show is no joke! Stories of bacterial infections are plentiful. Each shower consists of the shower stall itself as well as a dressing area. Both are small but private via shower curtains. I was pleasantly surprised with the shower facilities.
- The living cubicles are well represented in the show. Our bunks are two-high. The senior bunkee typically commands the lower bunk, and generally sets the house rules for the the cube. It is typically unacceptable to enter someone else’s cube without permission. Again, respect is key!
- The scenes with the mysterious chicken in the yard seemed stupid when I watched the show. As it turns out, that type of thing is pretty real. We have skunks, turkeys, cats and bears that fulfill that role.
- The flashback scenes are realistic. I have experienced them myself, and others have as well. I’ve actually recalled many random things in great detail, most of which I thought I had long forgotten. Prison is a time and place to reflect deeply. The distractions of the world are isolated. Its one of the few benefits if you allow it to be as such.
- Contraband is a huge problem, very much like how the show portrays. Its a temptation that you must stay away from. The consequences are severe. You may not come back to the same facility if you disappear for awhile due to contraband. Don’t get involved!
- Respect for the chapel is far greater in real prison. That can change at higher security level facilities, but the abuse that occurs in the chapel on the show is completely opposite of the respected place of worship that it is here. Most religions are represented, and the space is peacefully shared.
- Intimidation of other inmates is not prevalent in lower security level institutions. An exception is the child molesters or snitches. Neither of those groups are at all “popular, but that seems pretty obvious from TV.
- Overall, visits are more enjoyable than what is portrayed in the show. The visiting areas can vary dramatically from facility to facility, which makes a big difference. Visiting is important! Everyone gets excited for another inmate who has a visit. Visiting days raise morale for more than just the person visited, as others want to hear what’s going on outside as well.
- The transportation system between institutions was very accurately portrayed in the show. Its a process to avoid if at all possible. Inmates of every security level are transported together so everyone is treated as high security.
- Fighting is rare in Camps and low security level facilities, but when it happens, its pretty extreme similar to the fight between Piper and the girl she beat-up in the show.
- It isn’t quiet anywhere, including around the telephones, and there isn’t a comfortable place to sit anywhere. That has been hard to get used to, as its difficult to find a quiet and comfortable place to sit and write. I did not expect that or perceive that from the show, but many people comment on it being an issue. You have to work hard to find a good spot at the right time of day to enjoy some peaceful work time. Piper did read while sitting on the grass in a few episodes. That sort of tells the story.
- There are many interesting people in prison, and the individual stories are incredible! It is easy to get dragged into drama and hate discussions. It is also possible to thrive in several ways, but it requires incredible mental drive which is why the recidivism rate remains near 70%. A couple of guys in my range are back here on violations after having just been released not too long ago. I think the show captures this fairly well. Establishing a routine that includes building plans for the future and continuously re-centering on those goals is key. That part I did not get that from watching the show. You must respect yourself, and remain very disciplined in an environment that exudes laziness and commiseration. Have a plan and execute it under your own strength – that is what will allow you to walk out of the doors a better person!