Piper’s experiences make for pretty entertaining TV — and offer the most realistic portrayal of convicts the small screen has ever seen. Because Chapman (along with fellow inmate and ex-girlfriend Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon) looks and acts like a young woman a middle-class or upper-middle-class college graduate might know and admire, the show fosters a sort of empathy we don’t get in police procedurals such as “Law & Order” and its spin-offs.
The characters’ stories in “Orange Is the New Black” are similar to those of the hundreds of women I represented as a public defender from 1999 to 2007. Most of the show’s inmates are exceptionally intelligent, though not necessarily able to articulate that intelligence in a way those of us who aren’t behind bars would readily recognize. It’s the kind of smarts it takes to navigate intricate bureaucracies, form strategic alliances and protect oneself from harm while enduring difficult living conditions. Most of the show’s characters are generous and fair, though hard living has made it difficult for them to trust others.
The world of Piper Chapman is harrowingly unstable. Yet it’s also one many of us would inhabit if we lacked the money, medicine, therapy, support networks and permissive law enforcement to ensure that bad behavior rarely leads to dire consequences.
Consider Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), a charismatic inmate whose infectious good humor masks the anxiety she feels over her impending release. Like many of the women I advocated for in court, Tasha is likable and engaging but has trouble acclimating to freedom after years behind bars. Her evident comfort in the unpredictable but small society of prison suggests that some find incarceration easier to handle than the cold shoulder America offers its convicts upon their release.
Often, freed felons come home to unstable and poor-paying jobs, families who are needy or indifferent rather than supportive, and peers who have dispersed or sunk even deeper into harmful and often illegal behaviors. My former clients who entered a spiral of relapse and recidivism did so largely because they had no parents or relatives to help them, little access to expensive outpatient rehabilitative services, and no way to afford stable housing or find steady work upon release.