By Elizabeth Kuhr
Friday, June 20, 2014
As a hit show enters its second season, it is building awareness of prison conditions, particularly for transwomen. "People are so interested in anything having to do with Orange Is the New Black," says the executive of the Women's Prison Association.
Credit: Courtesy of Lionsgate Television
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)—The New York Civil Liberties Union is trying to harness the buzz about Netflix’s TV series “Orange is the New Black” to improve conditions in an actual prison.
"We're seeing participation that you don't normally get with a lawsuit," said Amol Sinha, in a phone interview. He is the director of the NYCLU's Suffolk County chapter overseeing the organization's effort to affect change at the Riverhead jail. He added, "it tells us the public really does care about dignity and basic human rights."
In 2013, Sinha's group won a legal victory concerning conditions at the jail but so far he said things haven't improved.
To help the cause, his chapter began a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #humanityisthenewblack that has been attracting strong support from followers including Piper Kerman, whose memoir inspired the show.
— NYCLU (@NYCLU) June 7, 2014
— Piper Kerman (@Piper) June 4, 2014
— Mothers of Bedford (@MothersBedford) June 17, 2014
Other social justice activists are latching on to the show as well, which Netflix said pushed its subscription rates to record highs last year.
The Women's Prison Association, based in New York City and founded in 1845, is the oldest female-focused advocacy group for incarcerated women. Timed to the June 6 start of the second season, it hosted a sold-out fundraiser that included several of the show's actresses including Jackie Cruz, who sang a solo.
"People are so interested in anything having to do with Orange is the New Black," said Georgia Lerner, executive director of the group, in a phone interview.
The show highlights discrimination against genders, races, and sexualities and remains notable for its "pretty realistic" depiction of prison life and challenges stigmas of prisoners, said Lerner.
Luz, a formerly-incarcerated women and client of the group who did not provide her last name, said the show "puts a voice" to a lot of her experiences while in prison and shines a spotlight on the overlooked population of incarcerated women.
"Women who got in [prison] lose a lot," Luz told Women's eNews at a Women's Prison Association event on June 16. "We lose our children, our families, our work. The series is very important because it focuses on women's stories and their challenges."
Lerner credits the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 2013 decision not to haphazardly transfer 1,000 incarcerated women from their prison housing, which would have displaced them hundreds of miles from their friends and families, to the heightened awareness of prison injustices sparked by the series.
"As a society, we do a really great job of locking people in boxes and forgetting about them," said Lerner. "The fact the show is on makes people pay attention."
Channeling the show's popularity apparently hasn't improved conditions at the Suffolk County jail.
Last year, the ACLU won a lawsuit against the Long Island facility after inmates submitted over 100 complaints about such problems as human waste running through their cells, rats and rodents, chronic breathing problems and skin infections. The court ruled Suffolk County had to "fix conditions" and allow the lawsuit to "collect damages," said Sinha.
Michael Sharkey, chief of staff for county Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, said in a phone interview on Thursday that he cannot comment on the lawsuit, but that Riverhead Jail meets the standards set by the New York State Commission of Corrections.
Orange is the New Black depicts the life of fictional character Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), charged with transporting money from drug sales, and her relationships with other inmates. Those in the federal prison with her include ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon).
Piper Kerman, who wrote the book that inspired the show, serves as an executive consultant for the show. With occasional help from the Women's Prison Association, she provides the show with advice on content and details to best capture her experience of incarceration. Lerner said Kerman is aware and respectful of the fact that she does not represent every incarcerated woman.
"It is maybe the first exposure that some people have to the inhumane conditions that people of all kinds, and sometimes especially LGBT people, face behind bars," said Harper Jean Tobin, a lawyer and director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality. "It is a helpful reference point."
In general, Tobin praises the show's treatment of its LGBT characters as three-dimensional. But she says it veers away from credibility with the character Sophia Burset since transgender women are rarely housed in women's prisons.
"The vast majority of transwomen in this country are still housed in male prisons where they are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other inmates," said Tobin.
She added most transwomen in male prisons are housed in solitary confinement.
Lerner also notes that not every aspect of the show is realistic, but applauds it nonetheless.
"Someone's whole story was not that she was arrested with a bag of drugs," said Lerner. "Everyone has a whole life, and everyday our lives can change."
Elizabeth Kuhr is an editorial intern with Women's eNews. Follow her on Twitter @elizabeth_kuhr.
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