“What do you think of ‘Orange Is the New Black?’” Since Netflix’s series about life in a women’s prison premiered this summer, I’ve fielded the same question from almost everyone I know. I guess it’s because I have some experience on the subject. Before I got clean, I spent many years in and out of jails and correctional institutions. I did a short stint at New York City’s Rikers Island in 1995, and participated in a six-month alternative-to-incarceration program administered by the Women’s Prison Assn.
I was a bottomed-out junkie when I was arrested. My entry into Rikers Island was a continuation of the desperate life I had led before, when my lover would throw me out of my apartment and I would end up on the streets for days at a time, hustling strangers for money and drugs until I could temporarily work my way back into my apartment and my lover’s good graces. When I was taken from the Manhattan bullpens to Rikers, I was shackled by the hands and feet to a bunch of other female convicts who cursed and spat as they left the bus.
There are many differences between my experience and that of Piper Kerman, who wrote the memoir on which the Netflix series is based. But the series contains much that rings true to me.
The prison system bestows tremendous power and command on corrections officers. But as human beings, they are often just as flawed as the prisoners, and it sometimes seems they could just as easily have been behind bars. During my time at Rikers, there was an officer who would trade contraband for sexual favors, lurking in the hallways and offering dope to desperate women.
Kitchen jobs are the best and most coveted jobs in prison. A cook can make commissary money by giving some people better food than others. Like Kerman’s character in the series, I had to get creative to get enough to eat. After a week of having food taken off my tray and being left with only the beanies of my beanie-weenies, I went to my prison counselor and told her I was Jewish (though I was actually born Syrian Christian Orthodox) and needed to eat kosher. I knew the kosher meals came into Rikers prepackaged and couldn’t be tampered with. Moreover, since keeping kosher is a religious observation, the other prisoners thought it bad luck to take my food.
At times, watching “Orange,” I get a visceral gut punch. The strip-search scene, for instance, took me right back to my own arrival at Rikers. Even though I was kicking a bad heroin habit at the time, I will never forget the intimidation of being told to strip off all my clothes, put on a cheap paper gown and bend down and cough to show I hadn’t smuggled in any contraband.
And I felt Kerman’s fear intensely during the show’s first shower scene: the ripped and dirty pukey green shower curtains, and the fear of having someone pick your body apart while you’re wet and trying to keep as much dignity as possible while getting out of your first shower, scared and vulnerable. It all felt very real. I could almost smell the odor of mold and bleach that permeated those shower stalls.
The TV adaptation of “Orange” has much more lesbian play than there was in Kerman’s book or in my experience at Rikers Island. At Rikers, I never saw anyone have sex (in fact, it was against jail regulations to touch another prisoner or be in another’s cell). But there is a deeper truth and poignancy to the portrayal of relationships between inmates in “Orange” that ultimately keeps me watching.
In the Women’s Prison Assn. program I was in, I met Mabel, an older black woman I called Ma, who always shared her treats with me, and Shish, a young Puerto Rican woman who followed me around like a little sister. There were women who kept my secrets and who schooled me on how to behave. I had a loco woman fall in love with me, and I in turn fell for someone who was “gay for the stay” but who belonged to the meanest butch in the house. At Rikers, I saw a lot of this kind of “ownership” — women belonging to other women as wives, sisters, mothers or fathers, depending on the essence of their associations.
Essentially, regardless of what they’re in for, women behind bars are trying to create some semblance of their lives outside. Away from family and friends, what they long for is normalcy and a measure of comfort. They invent roles for themselves and other inmates that address a need for love and basic human contact.
It shouldn’t have to be that way. If we are going to send women to prison for being drug addicts, then we should at least implement a program to teach them about the disease of addiction and help them find treatment. We should also consider having only female prison guards in order to keep abuse in check.
I was fortunate enough to have a woman from an outside program called Crossroads advocate for sending me to the alternative-to-incarceration program. I will be forever grateful for the day she showed up for me and said, “Rayya, you’re not a criminal, you’re a drug addict, and you need help.” She is a major part of the reason I am here today, 16 years sober. The kind of help she offered should not come along only by way of a lucky fluke but should be available to all who need it as an institutional lifeline.
Rayya Elias is the author of “Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side.”