Is Orange The New Black? The Truth Behind Prison Shows

When people meet most playwrights and performers, they want to know: What have you done that I might have seen? Sitting down with Joseph Assadourian before his show at The Playroom Theater in the theater district, one feels urged to ask: What were you in for?

“They charged me with attempted murder, but I was convicted of assault in the first degree,” he says—a conviction for which he served twelve years of a twenty-five year sentence. Eight months after his release from prison, Assadourian is portraying some eighteen different characters in The Bullpen, a play he wrote that has just opened. The characters in this seventy-minute solo show range from a baseball-obsessed Dominican to a wily jailhouse lawyer; a transvestite to an Italian tough; a WASP defense lawyer that nobody can understand to a character that Joseph Assadourian names Joseph Assadourian. They are based on people with whom Assadourian was incarcerated, “the most interesting people I met in twelve years in prison,” he says.

A man leaning on a wall
Joseph Assadourian.  Photo by Jonathan Mandell.

But this is not the gritty prison drama we have come to expect—the kind that people with actual experience in prison see as exaggerated and exploitative. The Bullpen is a comedy, nearly a farce, in which the prisoners in a courthouse holding cell present a mock trial for one of its members (That’s the Assadourian character). The courthouse trial that follows the farcical trial is as much of a mockery. One half-expects a judge bopping people over the head with an oversized gavel.

 

The Bullpen is a comedy, nearly a farce, in which the prisoners in a courthouse holding cell present a mock trial for one of its members

 

“It does not delve into the dark side in a conventional way,” says Richard Hoehler, the director of the play, who met the playwright when he ran a theater workshop at Otisville Correctional Institution in Upstate New York. “Joe is a very funny guy, and his survival in prison was due largely to that—entertaining his fellow inmates for twelve years.” The very skill that would get him kicked out of class as a kid— using jokey voices, impersonating his teachers—attracted fans in the pen who would hang around with him because he made them laugh.

A juvenile delinquent who had been in and out of prison (“You start hanging out with the wrong crowd, and you’ve become the wrong crowd,” he explains), Assadourian asked the resident “jailhouse lawyer,” Brendan Cochrane, to help him with a legal appeal on his latest conviction. Cochrane asked Assadourian to write a play with him. That first effort, Joey Shakespear, was about two prisoners writing a screenplay that becomes a hit. The Public Theater gave the play a staged reading in 2003, followed by a full production by Ground Up & Rising theater collective in Miami. When his writing partner was transferred to another penitentiary, Assadourian kept writing, and then joined Hoehler’s workshop. (Cochrane now owns a video production company.)

Longtime theatrical producer Eric Krebs was most struck by Assadourian’s “creative mimicry” when he saw an early version of The Bullpen performed at the Castle, and he decided to give it a commercial run.

Assadourian was performing at The Castle thanks to David Rothenberg, the founder of The Castle and its parent organization, The Fortune Society, a service and advocacy organization for the formerly incarcerated. One can argue persuasively that the Society’s birth nearly fifty years ago was a result of the sensationalism of prison dramas. “In all the prison movies I had ever seen, the prisoners were only either escaping or rioting,” says Rothenberg. So Rothenberg, who was a successful theater publicist, was startled to come across a play entitled Fortune and Men’s Eyes by John Herbert, which told the tale of one inmate’s transformation from preyed upon naïf to predator—so startled that he decided to produce it.

Shortly afterwards, a sociology professor asked whether he could bring his class to Fortune and Men’s Eyes and have a discussion afterwards. During that post-play event, a member of the audience shouted out: “These characters are all stereotypes!”

Another audience member stood up: “This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell.” That first discussion led to many more, followed by speaking engagements and publicity—and long lines of ex-inmates looking for hope and for the kind of services that a theater publicist was unprepared to provide. To meet the need, the Fortune Society was born forty six years ago.

Six years ago, Rothenberg put together The Castle, a play in which four members of the Fortune Society sit on chairs and talk about their own life stories of incarceration and transition. This grew out of the Castle’s regular Thursday night meetings. “Those meeting are the best theater in town,” Rothenberg said at the time; “they have more drama than any play that I have ever seen on Broadway. When I said that, one of the guys said ‘So why don’t we do our own play?’” It ran for about a year Off-Broadway at New World Stages, and has been performed continuously in schools, prisons, courthouses ever since. (The next performance is July 29 at the Bronx Defenders office in the Bronx.)

But such a play is an anomaly. That first heckler’s comment at Fortune and Men’s Eyes cannot be easily dismissed in an entertainment landscape that has never tired of lurid prison shows, most recently the surprising hit on Netflix, Orange Is The New Black.

Two actors in snow
A scene from Orange is the New Black. Photo by Jessica Miglio for Netflix. 

The series has been well-received: “For all its daffy, dirty ways,” New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum writes this week, the show is more rooted in reality than most of what’s on television, and “intends to illuminate injustice.” But one need only read Piper Kerman’s original memoir of her year in prison on which the show is based to see how far the Netflix series strays from the reality. Much is outright fabrication (her violent interactions with the character Pennsatucky, for example), but even the incidents with a kernel of truth are rendered so over-the-top as to be indistinguishable from lies.

In the Netflix series, Piper inadvertently insults the fiery Russian inmate who heads the prison kitchen, nicknamed Red, who then deliberately tries to starve Piper, memorably having the kitchen help serve her a dish of a bloody tampon. In the actual memoir, Piper makes a similar faux pas to a similar character, nicknamed Pop, who gives her  “a ferocious glare” and tells her off. No starvation, no bloody tampon.  

Ironically, Kerman herself writes in her memoir: “My own experience was, in many ways, dramatically different from the popular conception and prevailing narrative about prison: who’s there, why they’re there, and what life there is like. When I came home, people would ask me, ‘Did you get beaten up every day?’ There’s an expectation of violence. There’s definitely violence in prison, but it wasn’t a central part of my own experience. I just felt like there’s a much more complete and complex picture to be presented about  who’s in the prison, why they’re there, and what happens.” The Netflix version of Orange Is The New Black doesn’t offer it.

There is something pernicious about these prison shows offering the most diverse casts of any other entertainments but then having them portray characters that bolster alienating stereotypes.

“People are not interested in how prisoners put their lives back together,” says Rothenberg; movies that try to depict this disappear. “They were about people coming out, trying to conquer their past. But just look at the number of crime shows—Law and OrderCSI, and 55 copycats. If it bleeds, it leads.”

Assadourian used to watch prison dramas as much as the next guy. (He has yet to see OITNB.) “They’re completely sensationalized. A show like Oz is a joke. Every four seconds, somebody’s killed or raped. It’s not like that. There’s violence going on, but it’s not going on all the time.”

This is not to say that prison is lovely. “It was the worst experience of my life. Now I’m having the best.” Before his release from prison, he had never even seen a play. Now Assadourian hopes to make a career in the theater, which is in some ways a more sensational prison story than any of the usual gore and mayhem.

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An update: A year later, the Bullpen is still running, scheduled through August, 2015.

Also: I just watched (ok, binge-watched) the third season of Orange is The New Black, and I was struck by how much the balance has changed, with much less emphasis on the standard sensationalism of the prison genre.

This is an excellent article and I've appreciated watching the conversation unfold in the comments. I have been doing theatre work (and other enrichment/education work) in prisons for about a year now. I've worked in three state prisons (men's and women's) with a fourth lined up (this time a federal prison).

There are a number of things I'd like to address.

Firstly, it is important to remember that prison culture is actually its distinct culture, particularly for people who have been incarcerated for a long period of time. I am beginning to understand that we, as outsiders, must approach commentary about prison culture as we would other cultures. Additionally, prisoners are an oppressed class, in general. We should bear both of these things in mind as we try to contextualize the experience of prison. We are commenting on the "Other," and we should be mindful of this, just as we would in any "Cultural Studies" context.

As one of the comments below indicates, also, the experience of prison is as varied as the individuals in prison. Treating the experience of 2.3 million people as though it were monolithic is dangerous. The contradictory responses from the audience of Mr. Assadourian's piece do not surprise me in the least. I would suggest that Piper Kerman's voice is not necessarily any more authoritative or authentic as any other. I recall receiving an unsolicited book report on Kerman's memoir while sitting at a picnic table in a caged-off visitation area with one woman who had been incarcerated for 10 years: "That book is so full of b.s., I wouldn't blow my nose with the pages." I haven't read the book (yet?), but I would caution against valorizing Kerman too much (though I think that she is using her position admirably to engage in a conversation that we, of course, need to be having…I'll give her that!).

In my experience working in prisons, the work is incredibly "slippery" and complex. In
the introduction to his book, Theatre in Prison: Theory and Practice, Michael Balfour sums up the complexity of this kind of work aptly stating, “Prison theatre, theatre in prisons, is a term in
eternal contradiction with itself. A living, breathing, noisy, chaotic, confusing and compelling paradox.” I couldn't agree more.

Lastly, Jonathan Mandell's point is well taken: "There is something pernicious about these prison shows offering the most diverse casts of any other entertainments but then having them portray characters that bolster alienating stereotypes." I watch OITNB. As a queer, trans* ally feminist woman, I relish in some of the representations of the folks in the show, considering the dearth of these representations in so many other media (though it's worth noting that, sadly, Laverne Cox's character would likely have been placed in a men's prison…beware of sugarcoated narratives!). As a prison activist, I grumble at the gross misrepresentations of prison culture that I perceive. Watching the show, like so many other shows, requires a critical lens. For better or for worse, it is part of a burgeoning conversation about a topic we generally avoid. For that, at the very least, I am grateful...

Thank you for your kind words about my article, and for your added insights. Yes, it's worth emphasizing: "the experience of prison is as varied as the individuals in prison."

A clarifying point about Piper Kerman's memoir: I did not mean to imply that it is the authoritative guide to life in prison. But reading it gave me an eye-opening perspective on the Netflix series. The contrast is instructive. Some of what series creator Jenji Kohan has changed strikes me as an improvement -- a few of the characters are better developed. But most of the shocking moments in the series simply do not exist at all in the memoir. Where did they come from? My guess is an imagination shaped by the perceived requirements of the prison genre and by audience expectation: What's a prison drama, after all, without a corrupt warden, a "shanking" of the wrong victim, a vicious schemer fighting violently to take over the prison's drug smuggling operation, a prison escape that involves vehicular homicide, etc. etc.?

Oh Jonathan. I realize I unintentionally implied that you were citing Kerman's memoir as dogma, and actually I intended to specifically address some of the heated conversation in the comment thread. I couldn't agree more that the contrast is instructive! Just as, I'm told, the difference of the treatment of women and the sensationalization of rape on HBO's "Game of Thrones" versus in the books by George R.R. Martin. Those of us here, I know, understand that mainstream media is often intended to reinforce the status quo, not challenge it. This is most certainly true for OITNB and your analysis of the "prison genre" is spot-on, in my opinion. The show is full of recognizable tropes.

Which actually brings to another point I meant to bring up earlier: your article got me thinking about the role of theatre in the cultural dialogue about prison. In my 25 years of doing theatre, I must admit that I tilt toward skepticism over optimism in regard to theatre's power in shifting cultural debate. That said, I think mainstream media (news and entertainment) is virtually hopeless when it comes to prison, retreading the images that make us fear others, definitely fear and stigmatize "criminals," support retributive justice, etc. The medium of live performance, however, seems to continually pop up as a beacon for other ways of thinking about/talking about justice, crime, community, resilience, etc. Mr. Assadourian's work and the work of so many others is where I'm placing my bets for paradigm change…Thanks for bringing his work (as well as the some of the work of the organizations in your article) to light. -julie.

Mr. Assadourian's work sounds both intriguing and important, and something many of my students would be interested in as well. I am interested by the fact that his work, which is grounded in his experiences, also received different points of views from audiences members about how "realistic" it is, and from an interesting comment thread I read on a critique of the realism in OITNB, how VASTLY different one person's prison experience can be from another. However, I'm not sure if "realism" is the litmus test by which we should give a thumbs up or down to media that portrays a part of society that most of us, in real life, would shun. Perhaps the question we should focus on is "does this portrayal humanize these characters?" It seems like the point of both plays and TV shows about people in prison, at least Mr. Assadourian's work as well as OITNB, is to remind us that criminals are not monsters, as are often portrayed in films and shows like Law and Order et al. They are also humans. I have eagerly watched both seasons of OITNB, and the second season in some ways departs further from reality and in other ways punctures the heart of how difficult it is to be 1) a prisoner with no/few rights, and 2) a woman who has even less power in prison than she does in the real world. "Realism," despite the early (later self-disputed) efforts of our Russian theater forebears, is never what we strive for in theater, regardless of how detailed the set or costumes. We are searching for human connection, and for all entertainment that strives to connect one part of society to another part that is very far from it, a fine balance of theatricality rooted in real experience is always required.

I agree that it's more useful to ask whether a prison show humanizes its characters, and that Orange Is The New Black does so more than many. But, in my view, the show undermines its own efforts in this regard, not by being unrealistic, per se, but by being over-the-top in precisely the same way that we've come to expect from any of these prison shows -- by perpetuating what Piper Kerman herself calls "the popular conception and prevailing narrative about prison."

Well, we might have to agree to disagree on OITNB, which you also have to keep in mind is meant to be a dark comedy. I have not read Kerman's book, so I can't speak to whether or not it has the same tone. One further question however: what other of "these prison shows" do you refer to? I can think of only one, OZ, that is set almost exclusively in a prison, and that it is the "domestic" setting for the characters throughout all or most of the series. It seems like most of our popular narrative of prison comes from books or TV shows and movies where "prison" is only one of many settings, and often serves as the extreme or traumatic part in the development of a character or an arc. I don't deny there are narrative stereotypes about prison that many TV shows and films play into, but that may be because in most cases, prison is only a slender part of the narrative instead of the entire focus.

You are very wrong. The prison genre -- with the action taking place solely or mostly within the prison setting -- has been around since the silent movie era. Among the best-known:The Big House (1930)Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code (1931)I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)Each Dawn I Die (1939)Men of San Quentin (1942)Caged (1950)I Want To Live (1958) - Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)Coolhand Luke (1966)Papillon (1973)The Longest Yard (1974)Caged Heat (1974)Midnight Express (1978)Escape from Alcatraz (1979)Brubaker (1980)Bad Boys (1983)Mrs. Soffel (1984)An Innocent Man (1989)Lock Up (1989)Caged Fury (1990)Death Warrant (1990)Caged Fear (1991)American Me (1992)The Shawshank Redemption (1994)Murder in the First (1995)The Rock (1996)The Green Mile (1999)Undisputed (2002, with sequels in 2006 and 2010)In Hell (2003)Bronson (2008)Felon (2008)Cell 211 (2009)

I could keep going with this --many more shows take place in prison. It is a very popular genre of entertainment.

I will say that not all the prison shows are absent of redeeming value. I can think of Short Eyes (originally a play) and Dead Man Walking (based on a non-fiction book.) I didn't even put these two on the list above, although the former is certainly brutal. But the genre is defined by stock plots and stock characters -- and stock brutality, primarily intended to titillate, not to enlighten.Let me quote from law professor Nicole Rafter's book Shots in the Mirror:"Movies of this type are essentially fantasies, films that purport to reveal the brutal realities of incarceration while actually offering viewers escape from the miseries of daily life through adventure and heroism."

If you're really interested in this subject, take a gander at Rafter's book, or watch some of these movies, and you might be shocked at how closely the Netflix version of Orange Is The New Black follows the stock prison genre formula.

I should mention that Mr. Assadourian told me prison authorities would not let the inmates watch "Prison Break" (another TV series that, at least in the first season, took place entirely in prison). He also brought up a TV series (a franchise, really) called "Lockup," which currently airs on MSNBC. (Each episode is supposed to be a non-fiction documentary.)

Like I said, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on OITNB. I find many of its female characters very complex, and it's amazing to watch women, many of whom would never have more than a few lines or tertiary role on a network or cable show, all working as an ensemble. While in many ways it departs from prison reality in season 2, more of the characters that are cursorily introduced in season 1 are much more fleshed out, and their relationships dealt with in complex and non-stereotypical ways. If you have watched both seasons and see the show differently, you are welcome to your opinion.

As to Mr. Assadourian's work, I look forward to finding a performance sometime soon.

You are certainly free to like a show without knowing nor caring about the larger context -- the reality of prison life, or the basic history of the genre. Many people like this show, and as I said, I find things to like about it too -- though fewer things now that I've talked to ex-inmates, and looked at studies of prison dramas, and read Piper Kerman's memoir. I do wish you would take the time to read her memoir -- it's short; it should take you less time to read than it took you to watch one of the seasons.

I know you only by your comments on Howlround, which on past matters have been quite insightful and intriguing (such as your suggestion for a national theater festival in lieu of the Tonys.) In this matter, you express strong opinions about a show (most of which I AGREE with), while stating that you haven't read the source material, and indicating you weren't aware of the existence of the genre in which the show is firmly placed.Isn't it possible that being better-informed would lead to a more nuanced -- or at least a slightly altered - view?

Perhaps the miscommunication is in my quoting you on "these prison shows," and assuming you meant TV (by the word "show"). I am very aware of the tradition in film that often portrays prison in either a romantic or overly brutal light, and have often found myself disheartened by the demonization of people who commit crimes, and even more disheartened and scared at how our news sources and "reality" TV shows claiming to expose the whole story behind a crime are relying on over-the-top flim-like narratives that further polarize "good people" from "monsters." Unfortunately, I doubt there will be anytime soon a fictionalized, popular TV show or film of Douglas Blackmon's SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME or other narrative sources that help us understand the complexity of the oppression in the prison industrial system and how to see our way out of it, so until then we'll have to rely on less-than-perfect on-screen portrayals, with the understanding that sources like Kerman's biography (which is in my stack of books) or even fiction sources like The Shawshank Redemption are always more complex than their big and small-screen counterparts.

If someone really wants to help most of these prisoners, instead of watching poorly-written shows like OITNB work to change the draconian drug laws that put relatively decent people in prison in the first place.

There is no moral justification for imprisoning people like the lead character in OITNB; it is strictly so that certain people (what some call the prison-judicial-industrial system) can make a lot more money than they would if they had real jobs.

Watching poorly-written shows helps nobody; political activism (at least sometimes) can. And yes, there are some really bad people in prison that no non-psychotic person can relate to. They are the only ones who should be there. But shows like OITNB rely on the incarceration of people who don't belong in prison (a fine at most) that we can easily relate to... making, in a sense, its production (and those watching it) an accessory to the evil of their imprisonment.

I was fascinated by this article. Not withstanding all the critiques of Orange is the New Black, I guess some thought given by mainstream society
to this largely invisible population – no matter how romanticized or
trivialized the context – is better than none. My interest is in the system that has shunted so many people to these places (West Coast people, please note Anna Deveare Smith's incredible Pipeline Project going on right now at the Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep - to be in performance at Yerba Buena on July 17 at 8 pm. Anna works with musician Marcus Shelby, and their project addresses youths being shuttled straight down the pipeline from school to prison.)

I also want to give an intro to someone you may not have encountered because he works in Australia – Rob Pensalfini. Rob recently wrote about his work with the ACE (‘Arts in Community Enhancement’) project in Queensland’s penitentiary system. He says that again and again, violent offenders have been found, in the crucial period of childhood and youth, NOT to have received any stores of self-love from others. This lack gives rise to what Rob and his mentor James Gilbert see as deep shame and a consequent capacity to inflict hurt on the world. (I'd be really interested to know what Joseph thinks about this assessment)

Rob's project is very different from Joseph's, but I thought readers of one might be interested also in the other. Rob has worked for many years in helping inmates to stage performances of Shakespeare (no simple task, given that performers are so often suddenly moved to another prison, sent to court dates, or simply lose focus and leave). He writes:

‘Something as simple as a group of people working together to put on a short production of a Shakespeare play in front of an audience of peers can help to replenish long-empty stores of self-love, and give rise to the kind of aliveness and lightness reported by many of the participants, along with a capacity for
feeling, and therefore empathy, that may have been suppressed.’

In the 1990s I encountered an experience somewhat related to the above. I was experimenting with ways to introduce Shakespeare in a meaningful (i.e. unpatronizing) way to prisons, something I had long been reading and thinking about. I would say I achieved one hundredth of the depth and sophistication that Rob has achieved with his ACE program – but I did get the chance to see something that amazed me. I organized Australia’s most prominent Shakespeare Company, Bell Shakespeare, to come into Mullawah Prison for Women to put on a full performance of Macbeth, around which I built a
two-month-long education program. Given the profile of the company and its
marketing resources, there was a lot of press attention for the actual
performance – and I was staggered by the fact that the inmates were thrilled to have their photos come out the next day in all the nation’s biggest newspapers. When I went in the next week, they had these photos literally plastered all over the walls – a testimony, surely, to the release of self-love. Bizarre as this may seem to us outside, the shame of national photographic self-exposure was sublimated by the thrill of being publicly associated with a POSITIVE event.

For those interested in learning more about Rob Penalfini’s work, his email contact is r.pensalfini@uq.edu.au

Also, a friend of mine works at Stockton Prison and says that many people he works with (as a music therapist) are now 40 or 50 years old, and have been there since the age of FOURTEEN!

"Much is outright fabrication, but even the incidents with a kernel of truth are rendered so over-the-top as to be indistinguishable from lies."

"In the actual memoir, Piper makes a similar faux pas to a similar character, who gives her “a ferocious glare” and tells her off. No starvation, no bloody tampon."

EXACTLY!! THANK YOU!!

Last year I, with high hopes (due to all the hype), started watching OITNB -- and quit after the first two episodes, saying to myself (even though I knew nothing about the memoir the show is based on) that it is totally unbelieveable bullshit, a complete waste of time.

It amazes (and saddens) me that so many people didn't stop watching it after the first two episodes (and even worse, actually think it is well-written).