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The coexistence of Hope and Hopelessness. What Orange is the New Black teaches us

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has probably been my favourite tv serie of the last few years, it has now come to an end and its absence will be felt.

It has been a groundbreaking work in the realm of TV series, the third Original Netflix series and also the most watched.

No movie or TV program has ever exposed the reality of imprisonment the way Orange is the new Black has. The main characters come from such diverse race, culture, gender, age, class, sexual orientation, life experiences, backgrounds but share one thing that will define them forever: they all live together in the same place, a women prison in the state of New York. They are inmates.

The faces featuring in the opening credits of OITNB belong to real women who have been incarcerated in american prisons.

The first season had a defined leading character, Piper, a white American middle class young woman in an apparently perfect relationship and life, who has been convicted for drug smuggling. She could quite easily be the person sitting next to you at work, somebody you met at a party or your best friend, who just happened to have made bad decisions a few years back.

As the series progressed, we got to know many more women, their personalities, the adaptive behaviours they develop in prison, the stories of their lives, their struggles, their strengths, their courage and their breaking points.

Through the years our hearts warmed for Taystee, Suzanne, Poussey, Cindy, Red, Gloria, Nicky, Morello, Pennsatucky, Alex, Flaca, Bianca, Maritza and many more.

None of these women claim to be innocent but they are still often unfairly accused of committing more crimes in prison. Are they all felons that require such punishment?

In US only there are 2.3 Millions people living in prison. Nearly 80% have been convicted for non violent crimes, mostly drug related.

As a specie, we have not seemed to have found an effective and compassionate way to address the consequences of crime and while the need of discouraging and dissuading people from committing felonies is a priority, I still feel that imposing long prison sentences, not to mention life sentences without parole, is one of the most inhuman aspect of our societies. Unfortunately most prisons focus more on punishment and confinement than on re-education and rehabilitation. Although there are many initiatives and professionals who dedicate their lives to improve the quality of prisons, the results are still disheartening with the exception of countries like Norway whose aim to reintegrate people in the society after prison is often successfully reached.

In a White paper in UK, imprisonment as been described as ‘an expensive way of making bad people worse’ (Home Office, 1990, para. 2.7) and it is hard to disagree with that.

Not to mention the atrocity of solitary confinement: " We place those who are their own worst enemies face to face with themselves, alone, in a void" (Hans Toch, 1975).

It is a debate that will probably continue forever.

I strongly believe - or is it a hope?- that OITNB has achieved a little miracle: it has opened the eyes of million viewers on the reality of the brutality of imprisonment, bringing a different perspective on inmates.

I have often talked about this topic with friends, acquaintances and what I have heard innumerable times can be summed up in one belief :" if they are in prison, it is because they deserve it. They committed crimes and they need to pay for it."

While I can get the rationale behind that, I am always so surprised how adamant some people are that only a bad person or someone that deserves it is incarcerated. They cannot conceive the thought that life circumstances, injustice ( justice, like every human related aspect, fails every day), despair or even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could potentially lead each and everyone of us to the total loss of the basic human rights: freedom and dignity.

From a Clinical Psychologist point of a view, I find it almost hard to believe that an unsuspected feature can still emerge in such adverse circumstances: resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to adapt to stressful conditions. It implies keeping clear thinking, some direction, a motivation in life and most importantly, keeping hope. A few can even endure solitary confinement, although for a limited time. Resilience is unsurprisingly a predictor of mental health. It is not surprising that there is a correlation between resilience and the length of time to be spent in prison.

One of the most significant predictive factors of resilience is the experience of a positive relationship in childhood. Tragically, the overwhelming majority of prisoners have endured childhood trauma.

What the TV show narrated which such depth is that people can potentially adapt to the most difficult and bleakening circumstances. They can form supportive relationships, they build themselves an image and a role, they find an occupation, a task or a mission that gives a meaning to their days. They manage to find a purpose.

But if pushed to the limits, everyone has a breaking point. Resilience is a not an infinite source. Despair is always around the corner in prison.

Hope and Hopelessness coexist in human condition, we can switch between the two quite rapidly and unexpectedly, like flipping from one side of the coin to the other Strangely they both are instinctive protective mechanisms. Yes, even hopelessness. If I do not hope anymore, I will not get hurt and I will not have to fight.

While all human beings go through this process at times in their life, prisoners struggle with it constantly. Without giving too much away, this coexistence and alternation of hope and hopelessness is perfectly portrayed and symbolysed by Taystee and Pennsatucky in this final season of Orange is the new Black.

Taystee and Pennsatucky, two of the main characters of season 7

Being an inmate means constantly having to fight for the survival and safeguarding of their physical and mental health. There is an actual daily challenge of maintaining mental sanity.

Through most characters of Orange is the New Black, we can grasp how there is an overwhelming correlation between imprisonment and mental health disorders: depression, psychosis, anxiety, self-harm, suicide and suicide ideation, OCD, PTSD. According to Prison Reform UK, 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. The rate among the general public is about 4%.

But that is not all. The stress of being in prison has the power to trigger dormant, genetic determined autoimmune diseases or neurological conditions that would have probably never developed had the individual not been exposed to such stress.

As this series points out so well , the nightmare of incarceration does not stay confined in the prison’s walls. Life after finally being released back into society is possibly even harder and for some it can mean being deported to a country of origin they never even lived in. Staying out of a crime dominated life is one of the hardest challenge. Ex inmates are likely to live in deprived neighborhoods, having probably lost a support network, all of which easily lead to commit small crimes that bring the ex cons back into prison. Choosing between homelessness, hunger and drug smuggling is often an obvious choice to make.

What puzzles me is that being in prison is rarely named as Trauma, with a capital T.

And yet there are very few life conditions that would be more traumatic than being cut off from your whole life, your family, your baby, your relationships, your freedom, your dignity, the respect from others, your career, your confidence and your health.

As a society we can show compassion to most traumatic events: death, illness, accidents, abuse, war, terrorism.

Why is it still so hard for many to feel empathy and compassion for prisoners? Obviously I am not referring to someone whose beloved ones have been killed or raped, but to the rest of us.

Is it the repulsion for the darkest human weaknesses and vulnerabilities? The struggle to accept that people are capable of committing crimes, sometimes horrible ones?

Or is the attempt of denying the uncomfortable truth that so many human beings have been much more unlucky than us and with very little chance to choose a different life?

Many inmates work hard to change themselves, But like that coin that needs a flick of a finger or a toss to be flipped, inmates need help to flip from hopelessness to hope again.

Resilience is like a rubber band that can be elastic and bounce back, it cannot be stretched too much; it breaks. One priority of our society should be to help keeping the rubber band elastic and not to break it.

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