It was rather hard to know what cards Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) had up its sleeve with the announcement of the sixth season premiere. After letting many of its black viewers down countless times in the past, it seemed that OITNB was losing its infectious charm. Many were left wondering if this season could be the redeeming factor for the show considering all that happened in the previous season.
From the death of Poussey Williams (Samira Wiley) in season 4 to the detestable treatment of the black inmates in season 5, many were left wondering if the new season could leave space to regain buy-in from its black viewers. The more significant question was how the show planned to recover its reputation after so much of the storyline seemed to rest on pain of marginalized characters in the show.
This season proved to be no different, with viewers explicitly noting that it not only revictimized many of the characters but showed us that the justice system seldom works in the best interest of those who are often most affected by it. For instance, consider that at the beginning of this season we see many of the women go from a regular jail to a maximum security prison. This happens after the women of Litchfield retaliate because of the mistreatment they faced from past correctional officers, while also being left in poor living conditions.
From the moment we catch up with Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) again, not only is she hallucinating from not having her correct meds, but she is also being interrogated about the riot that took place at Litchfield. Throughout the season we continue to see many of the women, especially woman of color, beaten and mistreated by the new prison staff and reprimanded for demanding to be treated with human decency. What makes this so painful to watch is how much the first few episodes (and seasons) parallel many of the real stories. This is especially true in the case of the Kalief Browder documentary, which features countless stories about how inmates often are wrongfully charged and suffer extreme abuse when incarcerated.
Beyond the rhetoric being cultivated around black and brown characters being their reason for the injustices they face while in prison, much of the season perpetuates the notion that the pain and the conditions many of these women experience should be taken lightly. This cruel mindset manifests darkly in episode 5 when we learn about the inmate “draft,” where correctional officers place bets and earn points on behalf of a prisoner’s demise.
By episode 7, we see this “draft” in action: correctional officers intentionally negatively provoke inmates so they can get the points they need to win the game. It takes the observation of one young black correctional officer, who is not participating, to make some of the other officers begin to feel sorry for their actions. He notes that the prison game is similar to a slave auction. And still, many of them continue to participate in the festivities.
What makes all of this alarming is that while this is a television show, this idea that inmates are being treated like slaves is something that is happening in real life. Last year alone, over 24,000 prisoners in 12 states protested against the inhumane conditions they face. From overcrowding and unsanitary conditions to medical neglect and abuse, the ugly truth about this season’s storyline is that Orange Is the New Black trivializes what could be considered modern-day slavery.
Currently, many inmates in correctional institutions both locally and nationally are involved in what may shape up to be one of the most significant prison strikes in modern U.S. history. Much like the storyline of season 5, this strike targets those who are not only poorly paid prison laborers but also the conditions under which many men and women serve. Many believe they are being treated like animals and left in situations that cause not only emotional and physical harm but also death.
Beyond the high levels of abuse the inmates face on the show, many of these women are forced to work through mental and physical coercion and are often placed in dehumanized positions. Many are often treated as commodities and property while having constraints and restrictions placed on their voices and freedom of movement within the jails. We see this in episode 12 where Gloria (Selenis Leyva) finds out about the draft and is thrown into administrative segregation after threatening to tell her counterparts.
Since the show’s creation, there have been multiple arcs focusing on both prison institutions and correctional officers' actions being similar to that of slave owners and slavery as a business operation. This season deals with a broader conversation on what it is like to be owned or controlled by a system and the mental and physical effects it can have on a person's livelihood. Considering that much of Orange Is the New Black focuses on how unjust the prison companies are and how they benefit from mass incarceration, this season goes back to the show’s core premise. In doing so, it shows that the prison industrial complex and concepts of modern-day slavery go hand in hand.
While some might say this season is just a continuation of more problematic rhetoric in entertainment and media, season 6 continues to provide commentary, regardless of how socially inept it may come across, on privilege, fragility and those who are complicit with being a part of systems of oppression. Even more, it examines the exploitation and control that prison systems have on inmates and the fear that consumes them even when they are given the freedom to leave.
Season 6 of Orange Is the New Black is currently on Netflix.