Captive States

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

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