How 'Orange Is the New Black' and other shows raise awareness of criminal justice and prison issues

“It’s sardine time,” says Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), scanning the overcrowded cafeteria at Litchfield Penitentiary in the Season 4 premiere of “Orange Is the New Black.” “We a for-profit prison now. We ain’t people no more. We bulk items.”

When the series, created by Jenji Kohan and based loosely on Piper Kerman’s memoir, debuted on Netflix three years ago, interest in subjects like the privatization of prisons was largely confined to academics, activists and journalists.

Not anymore. The dramedy, which returned to Netflix on Friday,  has turned once-obscure policy issues into binge-watching fodder. The series has racked up four Emmys, four SAG Awards and a Peabody, and reliably lights up social media when each new season drops en masse.   

The show and its popularity reflect a growing public awareness around the problems of mass incarceration (2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics), and its disproportionate effects on communities of color. 

Last July, President Obama visited a federal prison — the first sitting president to do so — for “Fixing the System,” a special about mass incarceration for HBO’s “Vice” series.  Two months later, Pope Francis blessed inmates at an overcrowded Philadelphia jail.

Like “Orange Is the New Black,” a growing number of television shows — from roasts on Comedy Central to docuseries such as “60 Days In” on A&E —  are offering a critical perspective on the criminal justice system.

“A conversation is being had that really is about humanizing people who are incarcerated,” says actress and activist Laverne Cox, who plays transgender inmate Sophia Burset in “Orange Is The New Black.”

While the series never strives for fly-on-the-wall naturalism, the issues faced by the women of Litchfield are very much drawn from reality. Last season, the prison faced imminent closure but was “rescued” by a private corporation more concerned with the bottom line than rehabilitation. The ramifications of this decision become clear over the course of Season 4, which taps into the conversation about race and policing spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In early episodes, Sophia struggles to maintain her sanity in the “SHU,” or solitary confinement, where she was supposedly sent for protection. As Cox notes, the story line closely echoes the real-life case of Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman who spent 30 days in solitary confinement in a Georgia prison.

“We really have never seen a show that was so successful that put forward the point of view of somebody trying to survive the criminal justice system as opposed to running it,” says Kerman, whose 2010 memoir chronicled the year she spent in a federal prison in Connecticut on drug-smuggling and money-laundering charges.

As Kerman, a consultant on the series, observes, “Orange Is the New Black” is particularly sensitive to the plight of incarcerated women and their families. Inmate Tiffany Doggett, a.k.a. “Pennsatucky,” (Taryn Manning) is traumatized from a rape at the hands of a prison guard. Having just given birth, Aleida’s daughter Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), who’s also serving time, searches desperately for a stable home on the outside for her baby.

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One of the most quietly radical aspects of the series is its use of flashbacks depicting how the women wound up in prison. Most are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and many of their back stories are marked by abusive partners, drug use and poverty. They are no less sympathetic for being guilty. 

This storytelling approach “gives you a full, 360-degree sense of why they did what they did; how being poor or black or being born into a certain neighborhood drove them toward committing a crime,” says Maurice Chammah, a staff writer  for the Marshall Project, an online publication focused on criminal justice.

“Orange Is The New Black” represents a break from traditional crime series like “Law & Order,” which focus on capturing and convicting the “bad guys.” And while antiheroes may be in vogue on the small screen at the moment, they are generally white, straight and male, unlike the multicultural, majority female cast of “Orange Is The New Black.”

Similarly, the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” and the ABC anthology series “American Crime” suggest that justice is easily derailed by racism and classism. 

Before “Orange Is the New Black,” television shows about prison often played up the sense of menace. 

MSNBC’s long-running weekend staple “Lockup” goes inside real facilities across the country, but has been criticized for presenting a distorted view of prison life. According to a study co-authored by Dawn Cecil, a professor at the University of South Florida, the docuseries focuses disproportionately on violent offenders in maximum security prisons, while downplaying such critical issues as mental health.

Even the reality genre, often criticized for sensationalism, has become more nuanced in its portrayal of incarcerated people. On the docuseries “60 Days In,” which finished its first season on A&E last month, civilians posed as inmates and spent two months at Indiana’s Clark County Jail with the goal of exposing failures within the system.

While the show relied on some familiar reality tropes and, at times, played like “Big Brother: Behind Bars,” it also shed light on the problem of untreated drug addiction and mental illness among the population.

Most participants walked away with a more complicated view of the people they met in jail. “When you attach names, faces, and lives to them, they take on a whole new light,” says Zac (the show did not disclose his last name), a 30-year-old Marine who bonded with a fellow veteran who’d turned to drugs to treat his PTSD.

Comedians have also taken up the reform cause. Some of the most memorable segments on John Oliver’s muckraking HBO satire show “Last Week Tonight” have focused on criminal justice issues, including the obstacles faced by prisoners after release,  bail and mandatory-minimum sentencing.  

Best known for skewering celebrities on Comedy Central’s popular roasts, comedian Jeff Ross went in a more socially conscious direction with his 2015 special, “Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail.”

Most of Ross’ jokes were aimed at the criminal justice system, rather than the inmates.   He was particularly critical of drug laws, at one point quipping that “there are men in here locked up for possession of less marijuana than I have in my lungs right now.”

“We are treating these people like human dust,” Ross says in an interview. “And we are paying a lot of money as a society to jail them, when quite frankly not all of them should be in jail.”

For his next special, Ross will ride along with Boston cops and  explore police violence, a related issue that, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, has popped up in shows including “black-ish” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “Scandal,” “The Carmichael Show” and the upcoming Fox drama “Shots Fired.”

If TV shows, led by “Orange Is The New Black,” are changing the way that the public views men and women who’ve been locked up, it also has the capacity to change how those people view themselves. 

Ross was performing at a college in Florida recently when a young man chased him down. “He said, ‘Dude, I was in the audience at Brazos County Jail,’” Ross recalls. “And now I’m a freshman at this college.’” 

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