The Netflix series Orange is the New Black came under fire as a glamorized, sexualized, comedic version of what prison is truly like in a campus discussion with three women who have firsthand knowledge of mass incarceration; two of them served time with Piper Kerman, author of the book on which the TV series is based.

Students who crowded into the C. Walsh Theater for the talk with “The Real Women of Orange is the New Black” may have been expecting a sort of celebrity appearance, but the conversation that ensued was a condemnation of a show that scarcely resembles the hell that panelist Beatrice Codianni and the other women experienced.

Fictional vs. real-world prison

Codianni, known as “Esposito” in Kerman’s book, is soft-spoken and solemn. She recounted her 15 years at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, informing the crowd that the prison was not a jungle of frivolous sex nor was it as comfortable a living situation as the show depicts.

“We are very outspoken against the Netflix show. It is nothing like Piper’s book,” she said.

Carol Soto, portrayed as “Yoga Janet” in the book, gave an emotional recollection of Danbury, where she served time for a minor drug charge. She was ripped away from her family upon sentencing and was not allowed to leave the prison to attend her mother’s funeral.

Women "not a threat"

The final speaker was Andrea James, who in 2009 was sentenced to a 24-month federal prison sentence. She passionately spoke out against the idea that mass incarceration protects society: “Ninety-nine percent of the women I met while incarcerated were not a threat to society,” James argued. Most of the women, she recalled, were in Danbury for minor offenses that did not justify tearing them away from their families.

Each woman spoke of the emergence of sisterhood among the incarcerated women. Contrary to the popular stereotype of prison as a hellish, racially segregated, every-woman-for-herself landscape, Codianni, Soto, and James made clear that, while there were fights between prisoners, the women housed in Danbury for the most part cared for each other’s safety and well-being.

There was a reverent silence in the auditorium during as the women spoke and at the event’s conclusion.

“It blew me away,” said junior Joe Ambrose of the women’s revelations. “Their stories really opened my eyes to the tragedy of mass incarceration in our country. I didn’t know much about what it’s really like in prison or how much the prison system really destroys families.” Ambrose attended the discussion with classmates from English Professor Elif Armbruster’s World Literature class.

Article by Suffolk University student Brenna Lopes

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