Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Rachel's Hair

Who among us has not admired Jennifer Anniston's perfect hair? Wondered if our hair might turn under just so if we get a trim and commit to blow drying every morning?  While Farah's iconic hair was obviously dyed, curled, and styled ad nauseum, Jen's was realistic, she was just another girl like me who lived down the hall with all her cool friends.  Not a reality show, but almost.

Well, the other day I read an interview with Aniston who is out on the press circuit to promote her new film, "We're the Millers." In the interview, she said she grew to truly despise the famous style in part because it took the stylist THREE HOURS every day to make her hair look like that.  In other words, not even Jennifer's Aniston's hair looks like Jennifer Aniston's famous hair.  It's fake, not real.  A hairdo created by and for television. Duh.

Which brings me to my long-awaited review of Orange is the New Black.  Since the release of this Netflix Original Series, based on the book by Piper Kerman about her time served in the Danbury (CT) Federal Correctional Institution, I have received lots of emails and comments asking about the show:  Is it accurate? Is this the way it really is inside a women's prison?

First of all, to be clear, I have never been incarcerated at Danbury, or any other correctional facility. I have, however, visited a few prisons and talked to a lot of formerly incarcerated people, especially women, about their lives on the inside. So I know a version of reality that has been constructed by my personal experience and the accounts that people have chosen to share with me. Not the truth, a truth.

Second, as is the case with all film/TV based on a book, you should really read the book. Kerman's book is different than the TV show and, I would argue, does a better job describing and analyzing the complexities of her incarceration experience. In particular, her book explores her white, upper middle class privilege in a deeper and more thoughtful way than the TV show.

THE REVIEW:  First few episodes are really bad, relying primarily on stereotypes and lesbian/women having sex with women scenes to carry an uninteresting protagonist through her first weeks of incarceration.  I would say skip them all together but it might be confusing to watch the rest of the series without this introduction, however feeble.  Then, out of nowhere, the program actually gets really good. The story lines are engaging, the characters are complicated, and the viewer is offered a somewhat accurate portrayal of the dynamics of prison life.

Bottom line? This is a TV show. Do the things that happen on the show actually happen in real life at Danbury?  Well, did the circumstances and events on Friends reflect your own experiences living in New York with a couple of roommates after college? Sort of, kind of. It is unlikely that all of the events portrayed on Orange is The New Black would actually happen to a small group of a women in the span of a few months, but most have probably happened at one time or another. Highlights include all the food stuff which does ring true, the portrayal of the woman who returns to the tier shortly after giving birth, without her baby, and Piper's 48 hours in solitary which I found almost unbearable to watch.  Remember the hunger strike?

I recommend you watch it.  Also read the book.  Better yet - volunteer at your local prison or halfway house and construct your own truth.