Ten Things “Orange Is the New Black” Doesn’t Tell You About Prison and Drugs
The highly praised show gets a lot about life inside a women's state prison right. But when it comes to drugs, not so much. Our expert, a former state prison inmate, looks at Season 2.
The women’s prison series Orange Is the New Black is the new The Wire. Critics have fallen all over themselves to praise the Netflix show for its “realness”—the women are every possible race, sexual orientation, age and whatnot, and while they are victims of the evil prison-industrial complex, they can also be pretty nasty in their own right. As in life, the folks in Litchfield prison in upper New York State range from sociopaths to sweethearts. But while OITNB may have the realness of great made-for-TV drama, how real is it really—as in real-life inside a women’s prison in 2014? We asked an expert—a former inmate—to break Season 2 down for us by focusing on its treatment of drugs, drug use, drug dealing, drug crimes and the like. Keri Blakinger, served 21 months in prisons and jails in New York state for heroin possession.
1. There are more drug addicts in prison. OITNB is set at a federal facility, where more than half of the inmates are doing time for drug crimes. However, of the many intriguing OITNB backstories, a surprisingly small number result in drug arrests. The series revolves around Piper Chapman, a WASPy upper-middle class woman sentenced to 15 months for the 10-year-old crime of transporting a suitcase full of drug money for her former girlfriend—and now fellow inmate—international drug trafficker Alex Vause.
While Alex and Piper are both imprisoned for drug crimes, they aren’t addicts—unlike about 65% of the prison population. Also, the number of drug crimes in OITNB, whether by addicts or not, is a little low. Granted, making half of the backstories drug-related might get redundant and boring, so artistic license earns the show a pass. But it bears mentioning that many inmates who aren’t convicted on drug charges are drug addicts who committed other crimes—like burglary, robbery or larceny—in order to finance their addictions.
2. Visiting rooms are a huge source of drugs in prison. The closest that OITNB comes to depicting visiting room smuggling is when Burset asks her wife to sneak in hormone pills (in Season 1), although ultimately her wife refuses. In real life, that and much more smuggling does happen.
Typically, a visitor comes in with the drugs in her mouth and then transfers them to the inmate during a kiss. A lot of facilities do a visitor mouth-check, though, and in that case the visitor needs to transport the drugs on her person and stealthily transfer them to the inmate during a kiss. The inmate then swallows the drug, and if it’s a single pill she can just sit back and enjoy the high. If it’s enough pills or drugs to distribute, then the inmate either poops them out or pukes them up and then sells them. It takes a bit of dedication and a willingness to sort through one’s own fecal matter or vomit, but that doesn’t seem to deter people.
While body searches take place on OITNB, body fluid searches are probably a little too real.
3. Smuggling is often a solo effort. Although we see both Vee’s drug-smuggling ring and “Pornstache” Mendez’s operation, a lot of the drug smuggling in female prisons is more isolated—hence, harder to dramatize. Frequently, a single inmate is just sneaking in enough for herself, and maybe her best friends. Sometimes women come into jail or prison with drugs already stashed in their orifice of choice. Sometimes they will have someone send in letters with Suboxone strips on the back of the stamp. Even when somebody is distributing drugs, it is a small operation—not really a gang. (A gang-controlled drug distribution network is more typical in male facilities.)
4. There is more diversity of substances. In OITNB we really only see opiates—painkillers in Season 1 and heroin in Season 2—being distributed in the prison. In reality, plenty of other substances are popular. Although you might assume that people don’t smoke marijuana in prison due to the likelihood of detection, they do. Although cocaine was not as popular as opiates at any of the facilities I was housed in, there was still a cocaine trade. The paranoia-inducing effects of crack or meth might seem to you or to me intolerable in prison, but there are people who do them.
5. The prescription pill trade is huge. Although OITNB doesn’t depict women trading or selling psych meds, this is the most readily available way to get drugs in prison. When being given their meds, some inmates cheek their pills, slip them into their sleeve or swallow them and throw them back up. Although “decent” pills like Percocet and other opiate painkillers are not commonly prescribed, it’s pretty easy to get your hands on milder painkillers like Ultram and mild stimulants like clonidine. Some women would even buy Neurontin, an anti-seizure medication, to crush and snort. Although it wouldn’t get you high, Seroquel, an anti-psychotic, is also on sale just because it can make you sleepy.
6. Desperation breeds absurdity. In jail and prison, people will try anything to get high. Accordingly, in episode 12 of OITNB, we see two girls eating nutmeg to get high—but at least that works. In reality, prisoners don’t limit their attempts to the workable. I had one bunkie who snorted coffee and another who snorted Benadryl. In one facility, the horticulture teacher complained that he couldn’t grow purple passion plants because inmates would lick them to death. The plants are purple and fuzzy and look like something that might possibly get you high, so inmates kept killing the plants with their sustained and dedicated—if futile—efforts.
7. Drug tests are a dreaded fact of prison life—but entirely missing from OITNB. Prisons conduct random drug tests and, in New York, if you don’t pee within the designated time range, you are automatically put in solitary confinement. The tests are terrifying not just for inmates who give a dirty urine, but also for those with shy bladders. In fact, in some cases the inmates who know they will give a dirty urine have less cause to worry. I knew one inmate who always carried salt in her pocket to slip into the cup to (she claimed) screw up the test. One girl allegedly filled a small plastic container with apple juice and carried it around in her vagina whenever she suspected that she might get tested. But pussies, pee and The Hole are a reality too far for even the best TV show.
8. Currency. Stamps are quite accurately depicted as a main form of currency in OITNB. However, in facilities where inmates can smoke—and about half of all states allow prisoners to smoke—cigarettes or rolling tobacco are more valuable forms of trade. In the state prisons where I did my time, a Percocet might cost a pack of Newports; just enough weed for one joint might cost two. (In Litchfield Prison, when cigarettes enter the picture they are the item being purchased, not the currency itself.) The other form of payment for drugs—one also missing from OITNB—is actual cash paid to people on the outside. If an inmate wants drugs, she can have her significant other or friend on the outside give money to the inmate dealer’s significant other or friend. Once the inmate dealer receives confirmation of the payment, she passes along the substance ordered. I know one woman who consistently managed to pay her partner’s rent this way.
9. Drug treatment programs. OITNB shows AA meetings—like Season 1’s gem of a meeting in which Taystee reveals that the point at which she knew she was drinking too much was when she found herself half-naked on top of a bulldozer with “barbecue sauce on my titties.” However, OITNB doesn’t show any professionally run drug treatment programs. These not only do exist but are often mandated for anyone convicted of a drug crime or assessed as having a drug problem.
The effectiveness of such programs varies considerably. At one prison, the unit that housed all the inmates in the mandated six-month drug program was notorious as the most drug-riddled unit. During the six months that I was assigned to the three-hour-per-day drug treatment program, our counselors changed about once a month. With some counselors, we’d have three intense hours of group therapy; with other counselors, we’d spend two hours waiting for them to show up, only to watch them retreat into their office and ignore us. Predictably, these programs were often just painfully boring—but they were critical to being awarded your earliest release date.
10. In every prison in the US—except the fictional Litchfield—drugs are everything. OK, not everything. But they’re huge. When there’s a fight, more often than not drugs were involved. Of course, sometimes it’s just because you have a crazy prison girlfriend who likes to create drama, or because somebody made a racist Christmas card that began a verbal argument that quickly escalated into someone biting someone else’s finger nearly all the way off. But usually it’s about drugs.
Keri Blakinger is a recent Cornell University graduate and current staff writer for The Ithaca Times. She blogs at www.keriblakinger.com and is seeking representation for her prison memoir titled IV League.
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