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Orange is the New Black: Motivations for Doing Time

Netflix’s original comedy-drama, “Orange is the New Black,” has taken the internet by storm. This addictive show, based on true events, portrays life in a women’s prison for an upper-class, well-educated, white woman in the Northeast. In this post, Ami Stearns uses the show to illustrate a few different theories of criminality.

Orange is the new Black

If you haven’t checked out “Orange is the New Black” yet, you should. The show premiered on Netflix in 2013 and the much-anticipated second season begins June 6th of this year. OITNB draws from the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a white, upper middle-class woman who spent a year in a women’s prison after being charged with money laundering. Piper’s entrance into the criminal justice system requires her to learn a whole new set of norms: Don’t ask what crime got your cellmates sent to prison, never insult the cook, toilet paper and cigarettes are valuable currency, and maxi-pads can be used for everything from shower shoes to an allergy mask. Set in the fictional Litchfield women’s correctional center, the popular show won a Peabody Award in 2013 and has reportedly already been renewed for a third season.

Nathan Palmer’s recent post on America’s mass incarceration trend centered around the effects that the “War on Drugs” had on the prison population as a whole. Another compelling angle, though, is the skyrocketing percentage of females who are imprisoned. The past three decades have seen an increase of over  800% in women’s incarceration (men’s rates have increased at a little over 400%). Two-thirds of female inmates are in prison for non-violent offenses. Nationally, 67 out of 100,000 women are incarcerated . I live in the state that is number one in the per capita rate of incarcerated women—Oklahoma. My home state incarcerates women at twice the national rate—130 out of every 100,000 Oklahoma women are in prison.

We can examine the plot and characters of “Orange is the New Black” in a number of ways and the show is exciting for that very reason. Issues of race and ethnicity, neo-family structures, social class, gender inequality, and network systems can all be fleshed out by watching OITNB. From another perspective, the show is perfect for helping viewers adopt compassion and see the human side of inmates. These ladies have a story, they have a name, they are not just a number, and the show helps viewers understand the real people we call “felons.” In addition, criminological theory can be illustrated through OITNB.

The women at Litchfield all committed (or took the fall for) crimes of one type or another and were motivated for a variety of reasons. Here’s a rundown of a few of the characters and how the allegations against them can be related to criminology theory:

  • Piper: Piper is the main character. She became involved in an international drug smuggling ring when she fell in love with Alex. Jack Katz’s “Seduction of Crime” theory might illustrate Piper’s motivation best. This theory suggests that people commit crimes for the thrill of it. Piper was a white, upper middle-class, well-educated graduate, looking for fun and excitement. When she met Alex and the sophisticated, globetrotting crowd, Piper was caught up in the thrilling and risky lifestyle.
  • Alex: Alex, who is Piper’s ex-girlfriend and former drug smuggler, came from a different socio-economic background than Piper. Alex’s life, shown in flashbacks, reveals that she was raised by a poor single mother and had many obstacles to achieving economic success. Merton’s strain theory works well with Alex’s motivation. Blocked from achieving the economic goals that equate success in America through appropriate means, Alex innovated by rejecting legal routes to success, instead choosing alternative, illegal paths to financial security.
  • Sophia: Sophia is an African-American, transgender inmate (who is played by an African-American, transgender actress). In Sophia’s pre-surgery life, she was a fireman who took the opportunity to steal credit information while inside people’s burning houses. This white collar theft was then used to apply for bogus credit cards that paid for the surgery. Theorists Cloward and Ohlin came up with differential opportunity theory to explain deviant behavior in the workplace. They argue that not everyone has equal access to the information and opportunities that are required to commit certain crimes. Sophia was in a position of power and authority as a firefighter in someone’s house, people’s possessions were easy to access, and she may possibly have learned from other firefighters how to steal when responding to fires. All these characteristics play a role in differential opportunity theory.
  • Dayanara: Dayanara, got caught up in her mother’s and the mother’s boyfriend’s drug production business, was basically destined for the criminal justice system where her mother was already incarcerated. Dayanara’s motivation can be explained using Aker’s learning theory, which argues that individual learn to do deviant and criminal things by watching those around them. Dayanara grew up observing her mother’s behavioral pattern and soon fell into those same patterns herself.
  • Tiffany: Rounding out the small sample of characters, we have Tiffany, who shot a nurse at the abortion clinic after the nurse made a snarky comment about the number of abortions Tiffany had experienced. Tiffany’s lack of self-control is evident in this situation, and thus we can use Gottfredson and Hirschi’s control theory to explain her offense. This theory argues that crime often happens because people have low self-control. Children develop self-control by age seven or eight, and it remains stable throughout the lifecourse. Those with low self-control are impulsive and more likely to be prone to commit deviant acts.

The characters’ offenses in “Orange is the New Black” can be interpreted using a variety of criminological theories. What I’ve illustrated here are just a few possible explanations we can use to view each character’s crime.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you know anyone who has been incarcerated? How would you explain what motivated them to commit a crime?
  2. Come up with a solution that might solve each of the above offenders’ “pathway to crime.” Are these solutions realistic?
  3. Read this  report and list the ways that women in prison have different experiences in prison than men do.
  4. Watch this MSNBC video featuring the real Piper and the actress portraying her. What was Piper Kerman trying to accomplish by writing her memoirs? Does the show sensationalize women’s prisons? What awareness do you think “Orange is the New Black” brings to the issue of women in prison?