'Orange is the New Black' and Our Secret Society

'Orange is the New Black' and Our Secret Society

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Ed. Note: Having spent the last 17 years behind the walls, the author and program director for incarcerated women hesitated to watch the hit show Orange is the New Black. When she did, she was amazed at how close to reality the show was, capturing subtle details usually only those on the inside understand.

I hesitated when friends told me to watch Orange is the New Black. Being that that I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life behind the walls, I figured unless it was different than all the other prison shows that never got it right, I could wait. It wasn’t until a good friend told me, “Yo like foreal, you need to watch this, it hella reminds me of you,” that I actually sat down and watched it.

I automatically understood the show from the women I saw in the introduction. I saw the faces of all the different types of women that go in and out -- some have piercings, some have scars from the street life or drug abuse, some are clear eyed and clear faced, some are dirty, some skinny, some bigger. I could immediately relate to the main character, Piper (who is based on Piper Kerman who wrote a book about her incarceration), while thinking of all my trips to the big house -- having to turn yourself in and the thoughts about the choices, the wanting to change the past and turn the clock back.

I was completely hooked on the show when I saw Piper sitting on her toilet and sobbing the night before she had to turn herself in. I felt like God was telling my secrets as I sat there with tears running down my face, remembering that feeling and reliving a similar moment.

It is really those subtle scenes that tell the normally unshared truth of being incarcerated. Like when Piper shares how the shower is her happy place, a place to be honest. The shower in prison was the only time I felt free, not only that it’s the only place one can really have a good cry, but because I will always remember how when I first got to prison I sobbed in silence under the running water. The shower became my safe place, and is still to this day -- that place I go to when I need to wash away the pains of life.

Those were like the first 15 minutes of the show. I could go on and on about the impact Piper’s truth is going to have on women who haven’t even gotten out yet. It’s like a secret society, and as the show points out, some don’t even make it to the outside, or start taking meds and don’t come out the same way they went in.

All these stories are real, and Piper is my hero for being brave enough for advocating for those women telling their stories. That’s exactly what I get to do now as a career, my purpose in life, through a program I dreamed up while inside and made real when I got out called Sister’s That Been There – a support group for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. I am so proud of Piper to be the one to come out and give life to these women’s stories, some who will never get out to get there credibility back.

And even the scenes that seem improbable, really do happen in prison. The first that comes to mind is a scam the women play during a scared straight session. Piper says to the young woman, Dina, “I was someone before I came in here. I was somebody with a life that I chose for my self. And now its just about getting through the day without crying, and I’m scared, I’m still scared, I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am.”

I can remember that exact moment in my own journey. Now that I'm free, I often ask myself: how did I even make it out in my right mind? Prison life is not a joke, it’s a spiritual war zone between self and the walls that close you in, cutting you off from the world on the other side.

I really liked how they shed light on the recidivism with the character Tasty. The one conversation that still occurs between women who were locked up together no matter how much time passes is, “Who is locked up?” And the phrase, “Guess who’s back” is always a start of that conversation. It’s never really a shock, but sometimes, most times, it hurts to hear those names. We all hope the best for the individual that gets released, but when they come back in we have a wide range of emotions – disappointment for sure, and then we rejoice because at least we have each other. It's crazy but true, we are a family, and when one of us succeeds we all succeed. And when one of us fails, we all fail. That level of support is how I’ve made it to where I am at now.

This show is valuable because it tells our truth about the relationships we have with one another. It is exactly why I am driven to keep those same connections we had on the inside here on the outs. Women come together on the inside and support one another, but then they get out and lose those connections and fail in rehabilitation.

That’s why I was so bothered by some of the backlash on Orange is the New Black, particularly from people who have never been behind the walls. In The Nation Magazine, an article called “White is the New White,” knocked the show, but the author Aura Bogado makes no mention she herself has ever experienced prison. As such, maybe she couldn’t handle the episodes, and at one point even says that the women depicted in the show wouldn’t appreciate the stories being told. I didn’t get the point of the article. It seemed contradictory because the writer is talking about racism and money and yet she has chosen to talk about something she has no experience with. I don’t know, but women who are behind bars love the success of their fellow inmates. I’m proof.

Reading Bogado’s critique, I felt a need to protect our truth from people who might not understand us. It’s nothing new that we aren’t understood, it’s why we go where we go. So to make it clear, back up off Orange is the New Black -- we don’t need you to understand us, the way we think, and the life we’ve lived. Life behind the walls is its own world, and Piper has nailed it.

Steeda McGruder is the founder and director of Sisters That Been There, a peer lead support and re-entry program in Santa Clara County.