by Ngaire Reynolds
It’s been a couple of years now since our previous Orange Is The New Black update, and it’s safe to say that A LOT has happened.
Seasons 3 to 5 were explosive, and sadly although fictional, have a lot of resonances with real-life prison experiences. From scenes where transgender inmate Sophia was placed in solitary confinement and denied access to her hormone prescriptions, storylines of the struggles of drug addiction in prison which resulted in one inmate Nicky being moved to a maximum security unit, prison gang culture and the impact of privatisation which led to an axing of their education and work-training programmes, an outbreak of scabies and poorly trained prison guards abusing their positions of power including the rape of an inmate. The over-zealousness of the prison guards was written in parallel with the real-life growing coverage of police officers in the US over-compensating their positions of power to African Americans in particular which led to season 4 ending with the killing of much-loved inmate Poussey by a prison guard.
Season 5 was set in the aftermath of this, with a 4-day riot. In ceasefire discussions, the inmates compiled a list of demands which although portrayed fictitiously, have true relevance to real-life prison. Although not exhaustive, the demands included:
- Better Healthcare
This is a huge issue for many of our clients, particularly those who are detained in developing countries, where the limited access to healthcare combined with poor, unsanitary conditions can often lead to disease and infection. Our Medical Fund is an increasingly important area of funding to prisoners detained overseas as it allows us to assist them with health issues including asthma inhalers, dental treatment and insulin for diabetic clients. Additionally, our Emergency Response Fund allows us to pay for critical medical needs including a wheelchair for a client who was forced to move around the prison without one and to pay for emergency operations.
- Fire The Guards
As we are a welfare organisation and not a legal or campaign group, we of course cannot advocate for any prison to fire their guards. We have however heard many harrowing stories from past and present prisoners who have told us of their experiences with prison guards, including John and Derek who were detained in Brazil. When Derek fell ill, he was escorted to hospital in handcuffs and a gun held under his chin, and John had his birthday cards stolen by the guards looking for money – except for ours, which we send to all clients. He told us “it was so wonderful that there were people out there that cared”. Although we cannot intervene in these cases ourselves, we provide emotional support and advice for prisoners going through ordeals like this.
- Reinstate the GED (General Educational Development) Programme
Although again, we cannot lobby for prisons to set up educational programmes, we provide clients with books, magazines and language materials in order to reduce isolation and improve mental wellbeing. Our package of books and magazines has provided a lifeline to British nationals in foreign prisons, where they may not be anybody else who speaks English. One client told us
“It took away the terror and boredom – at least for a few hours. It helped me feel like a proper person again”, whilst another said “I don’t believe that you will ever know what it means to me to be called out to the property room [in prison] to receive such a wonderful gift from England”.
Additionally, for prisoners who return to the UK after their sentence, we provide them with our resettlement service which includes the Work Placement Programme. Here, we help clients who encounter unique barriers to gain employment by providing training and assistance on CVs, the UK job market and computer literacy.
- Free tampons
OITNB has offered to the world an insight into particular needs that female prisoners have; being pregnant and giving birth in prison and a lack of access to sanitary products. This is an issue that we try to manage at Prisoners Abroad, where although only 66 out of our 998 clients in prison are female. Our Practical Relief Fund allows prisoners to be able to purchase items which improve their dignity and wellbeing, such as decent sanitary products and also items such as clothing and bedding, as sometimes they are not provided with this.
- Fresh vegetables
Ongoing conversations throughout the OITNB series are how bad the prison food is. However, in some prisons around the world, the ‘slop’ would perhaps be a comparative luxury – one client Lucy who was detained in Thailand told us of the daily rations which were rice or beans. A corrections employee was to check the food as it was on the borderline. Similarly, we have had numerous accounts of illness due to the poor quality food. Our Vitamin Fund provides vitamin supplements to help prisoners all around the world maintain their health in difficult conditions.
- Hot Cheetos
Well… Who doesn’t want hot Cheetos?
Read Lucky Number 3.