Orange Is The New Black’s myth of redemptive violence

I’m caught up on Orange Is The New Black and, sheesh, there is a lot to chew on. For those of you who don’t know OITNB is a Netflix original series that surrounds the lives of the correctional officers and inmates in a minimum security prison. The show is based on the real life Piper Kerman’s time in jail and her memoir about it.

The dark comedy is skillfully written and acted and it is quite compelling. It shows us the evils of prison: cover-ups, politics, money, sex abuse, drugs, and so on. Cloaked in humor and great character development are a few flaws that are too noteworthy to ignore, however.

The big question the show is trying to ask, but poorly answering, is the one that Angela Davis posited in 2003 in her text Are Prisons Obsolete? Reading Davis’ book, we find the answer to that question to be a resounding yes. But even though OITNB may try to affirm that answer, it gets caught in all of the drama. It’s in fact not a show about prison abolition, or anything even reform, more than anything it’s a show about the importance of redemptive violence.

The U.S. prison system is failing. The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five person of its prison population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.8 percent of black men are in jail, two percent of Hispanic men are, and .7% of white men are. According to census date, 40.2 percent of the U.S.’s prison population is made up of black men, too. The system is broken and I can’t help but consider that when I’m watching this show.

The show has some good to it. The horror of prison stealing someone’s work skills and making them unfit for labor in the free market is a feature. Even the evils of compassionate release, releasing a mentally ill prisoner (sometimes without a family to go to), are exposed. The show does a nice job of showing how politics can complicate prison funding and how sometimes crimes within the prison are overlooked for a political agenda. It highlights how an underground market can be created to distribute power and wealth in the broken system and how commissary only makes such a market more powerful.

With that said, the fundamental problem of punishment as an unfit medium for reform, though the show hints at it, isn’t nearly spoken about enough. The idea that violence can redeem is still the main one that the show teaches. By making us sympathetic with one character, we are at peace and relieved, when that character hurts or even murders another one that the show has made less pleasing to us. The idea should be that violent punishment is never effective and it creates more problems than it solves. Truths like that aren’t explored enough. I felt this especially as the show concluded on the high note of murder.

One of the many expertly written plots in the story revolves around Rosa Cisneros, a victim of cancer, who is in jail for her repeated bank robberies. Rosa loves the smell of money and the thrill of robbing banks. She is very easy to love; she even develops a relationship with a teenager in the hospital where she receives what we learn is ineffective chemotherapy. She is repeatedly telling people dying in prison is no way to die, which is true. When she’s given the opportunity, she steals a prison truck and escapes. That alone is liberating. Good for her.

With that said, during season two, we get to know a manipulative drug dealer named Yvonee “Vee” Parker who greatly influenced fan-favorite Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson when she was a teenager. Vee creates strong racial divisions (even in this show, the black lead is the villain!) in the prison surrounding her cigarette (and heroin) hustling business. She divides friends and makes enemies. Finally, when cornered, she uses a sewer pipe, which has been used to smuggle in goods, to escape. On her escape into the real world, Rosa, who is now racing down a back road in her stolen truck spots Vee. Vee has always been rude to Rosa, so Rosa decides to kill her with the truck. That’s the great high note on which the season : the myth of redemptive violence. It’s the broken philosophy that got us into this mess.

I was discouraged that the show ended this way because it is precisely that cycle of violence that has caused prisons to grow in this country. The belief that violence can positively change someone’s behavior. Jesus has a different way of doing things. Trough grace and forgiveness, truth and love, community and relationships, prayer and worship, and true connection to God to people transform.

Running your enemy over with a truck? I think that might just make everything worse and your hatred deeper.

2 Replies to “Orange Is The New Black’s myth of redemptive violence

  1. Thanks Jonny! A thoughtful read. You did provide the stats for prison population by stating, among other info, that “According to census date, 40.2 percent of the U.S.’s prison population is made up of black men…” I think those stats stand out even more against the general stats of the US population so here they are.

    US Population
    77.7% White
    13.2% Black
    17.1% Hispanic
    62.6% White alone, not Hispanic or Latino

    We are incriminating a substantial section of the minority population at an astonishing rate. Is this related to social/community issues, personal decisions, education or economic choices? Probably, a little bit of all those things. As that is the case, we cannot turn a blind eye and let former convicts struggle on their own or simply address the recurring problems that put them in prison in the first place. We desperately need a community that takes responsibility for each other.

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