When Orange is the New Black first premiered on Netflix in 2013, it was evident a sea change in television was happening. The bingewatching format was still new (ushered in by House of Cards a few months prior). But what has truly cemented the show’s place in TV history, alongside its 16 Emmy nominations and four wins, has been not only its vast representation of women spanning gender identities, race, body size, sexual orientation, and age, but also the show’s representation of women in prison.
Orange is the New Black is loosely based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name. Back in 1998, Kernan was indicted on money-laundering charges and served 13 months of a 15-month sentence. Since her release, she’s used her platform to push for prison reform, specifically for women in prison.
Now, as the series comes to a close with season seven, the creative team behind Orange is the New Black is doing its part, too, with a newly announced fund to support advocacy groups fighting for prisoner rights, anti-recidivism, and more.
Named after the fictional character played by Samira Wiley who was killed by a correctional officer in season four, The Poussey Washington Fund “will support eight preexisting non-profits to benefit organizations focused on social issues surrounding criminal justice and policy reform, immigrants’ rights, and helping those affected by mass incarceration,” according to the fund’s page on the crowdfunding platform Crowdrise.
— Orange Is the New Black (@OITNB) July 25, 2019
The prison industrial complex in the United States has long faced criticism for a laundry list of reasons—from lacking educational programs to capital punishment to excessive sentencing. However, adding the intersections of race and/or gender to an already dismal state of affairs for prisoners makes matter even worse. Over 40 years, the women’s state prison populations has risen 834% nationwide, more than double the growth rate for men. In 2017, the imprisonment rate for black women was twice that for white women. Nearly 80% of women in jails are mothers. Between 2009 and 2011, 67% women experienced sexual victimization at the hands of prison staff. Women are more likely to enter prison with a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems. Transgender women often have to fight for access to their hormone medication, and they still run the risk of being placed in male facilities, which makes them 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted.
This just skims the surface of a sprawling nexus of issues facing women behind bars—issues that Orange is the New Black deftly covered over the course of seven seasons. Capitalizing on the popularity of the show, Kerman testified before Congress in 2015 and before a House Judiciary subcommittee earlier this month about the conditions that women face in prison. The committee even screened a scene from Orange is the New Black where Maria (Jessica Pimentel) goes right back to prison immediately after giving birth—”a reflection of something that I witnessed very early in my own prison sentence,” Kerman told The New York Times. “You could have heard a pin drop in that room. Everyone understood the emotional impact. There’s no substitute for storytelling to drive these points home.”
And that’s exactly what Orange is the New Black‘s legacy should be.
The fact that the show has become a springboard for an inclusive set of actors including Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, and Dascha Polanco can’t be overlooked. But couple that with the dialogue around prison reform for a spectrum of women, and it becomes something far greater than bingeable entertainment. The Poussey Washington Fund is an excellent gesture to keep the conversation going after the series takes its bow. Hopefully the commercial and critical success of the show will continue to push Hollywood to finance more stories about marginalized communities because, like Kerman said, there’s just no substitute for storytelling.
“I hope that, on this final season release day, more Americans can see our dysfunctional criminal-justice system for what it is and take to heart the need to reform it,” Kerman said in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “We want to keep women and girls out of prison and jail whenever possible—while holding them accountable for their mistakes in ways that build community rather than shred it. We expect every woman to be treated equally by law enforcement regardless of the color of her skin. And we want women returning from those dehumanizing places to have a fair chance at a new life. Orange Is the New Black is coming to an end; it’s long past time to end the failed policies and bad laws that made the series possible.”