Here at The Constitution Project, we are always seeking new ways to disseminate our policy recommendations beyond the traditional vehicles such as our policy reports and amicus briefs. Through our committees of legal experts and opinion leaders, we are able to form policy initiatives and reach targeted audiences with our message. But the idea of a particular policy initiative is often never as powerful as the story behind it. And Netflix’s hit show “Orange is the New Black” is telling the story of the lives of people affected by a dysfunctional justice system. It has surprisingly and delightfully exposed a wide audience to the very serious problems plaguing this system, and more importantly, is making those people care about it.
Warning: possible spoilers below!
“Orange” is concerned, on the broadest level, with the complicated interactions between race, gender, poverty, sexuality, and discrimination within the criminal justice system. Since its premiere in the summer of 2013, “Orange” has regularly addressed issues at the center of TCP’s constitutional advocacy work. When the show’s protagonist, Piper, is sentenced to prison for a decade-old crime, she explains that the federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes wholly dissuaded her from exercising her constitutional right to a trial. Throughout season one, the threat and use of solitary confinement (or SHU, segregated housing unit, as it is referred to in the show) haunts the prison like a specter. Later in the season, the audience is finally forced to watch a character experience solitary confinement, and the effect is uniquely distinct from that of simply reading about the practice. This is the gift Orange brings to the advocacy community: a direct route to the sensory experiences of a wider audience than previously possible.
Season two, which premiered on June 6, went on to tackle even more issues related to our work and those of our partners: some of the inmates, fed up with the arbitrary and unreasonable use of solitary confinement as punishment, stage a hunger strike. This practice is common in U.S. prisons, where inmates have no other means by which to protest their conditions. Also common is the practice of force-feeding to control hunger-striking inmates, which is another tough topic that “Orange” broaches. TCP has spoken out repeatedly against the practice of force-feeding, acknowledging it as a form of torture, both in the context of Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.
The show also addresses the potential for corruption within, and surrounding, the correctional institution; the complicated issue of “compassionate release”; the impact – or lack thereof – of the Prison Rape Elimination Act; the role of mental illness in the criminal justice system; and most importantly, the effect of the U.S. prison system on families, on relationships, and on human lives.
Netflix does not release statistics on viewership for particular shows. However, the company currently boasts 44 million subscribers (33 million in the U.S.), and piracy statistics show that nearly 56,000 people illegally downloaded episodes of the show within the first two days of the release of Season 2. Netflix finally broke some of its famed silence by admitting that “Orange” has become its most-watched original programming. All of this means that a larger audience than ever before is watching, listening, learning, and thinking about these issues in the context of characters they can relate to – characters that they have come to care about.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact that “Orange” has had across traditional media, social media, advocacy communities, and even the U.S. government. Piper Kerman, on whose experiences and memoir the show is based, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year regarding the use of solitary confinement as punishment in U.S. prisons. Every day, the show gets dozens of mentions every hour across the most popular social media platforms. The news media is consistently including issues specific to the disturbing and unique problems of incarcerated women in its coverage of crime and punishment. People who will never come face to face with the criminal justice system, who have never had a loved one incarcerated, who had never thought twice about these issues are thinking about them now.
For all of these reasons and more, The Constitution Project is proud to present the creators of “Orange is the New Black” with this year’s Constitutional Commentary Award at our annual Constitution Day celebration. While the show necessarily takes creative departures from reality, it unflinchingly tells the stories of the people affected by ineffective, discriminatory and – at times – inhumane, criminal justice practices. The narratives provided through “Orange” can only increase support for positive reforms and solutions to the crisis of mass incarceration.
Check our Events page soon for more details about Constitution Day involving “Orange” and its creators.