Orange Is the New Black is a US television drama set in a women’s prison, based on the autobiographical memoir by Piper Kerman.

It has taken the world by storm with its strong female characters who still find humour in what can be a raw, isolating, miserable situation. We see heart-warming camaraderie, as well as women being frozen out of social groupings for putting a foot wrong.

  1. Violence is rife in the drama – gangs send warnings to rivals if there is a disagreement and fight to control areas of the prison. We know this happens to the people we support too: Mark in Venezuela had to prove his strength to the prison gang on arrival.
  2. Food: The prison has a canteen where you rely on the good will of the cooks to get a decent meal. In many countries there is not even a canteen; food might be thrown on the floor and chopped up with spades, followed by a scramble by the fastest and strongest to get to it. We send money so that people can buy the basics for a meal a day in Thailand.
  3. Clothing for the inmates of Litchfield Correctional Institution is a drab grey uniform of trousers and strong boots, with orange for newcomers. Women in the Caribbean report having to wear uniforms designed for men – ill-fitting and uncomfortable – and in many other parts of the world nothing is provided and you have to rely on your family or wear the same clothes you arrived in.
  4. Corruption: The prison guards in Orange Is the New Blackbring in all sorts of contraband to make some extra money. In some countries in South America you have to pay a guard simply to go to the toilet.
  5. Dirt: There’s always a demand for the showers and some become unusable when sewage starts flowing out of the plumbing. This is a common situation in many countries, including Thailand, where you might have a bucket to wash with if you’re lucky.
  6. Family: Gradually Piper loses her relationship with her fiancé on the outside, and her father never comes to visit at all as he can’t bear to see her. She’s allowed one short phone call each time, and if it goes to voicemail that’s her allowance gone. Guards listen in to ‘monitor’ conversations. In Cambodia it’s unlikely you would have any access to a phone at all. We try to help people to stay in touch with their families by writing or visiting, and support families through the difficult uncertainty.
  7. Visiting: Piper loses this ‘privilege’ at one point. You can forget the right to family life in a few countries: infringing rules could mean your partner, children or parents don’t get to see you; help you prepare for the outside; or have difficult conversations that can’t be done by letter. You might turn up to visit and find your relative has already been transferred somewhere unreachable. Prisoners Abroad can help to book visitsand in the last year we have assisted relatives to go to France, Spain, USA, Indonesia and more.
  8. Health: The women’s exercise yard is closed when there aren’t enough guards to patrol it. Whilst you’re supposed to be allowed an hour outside each day to stretch your legs, some places have no outside space to exercise and it might just be a cage on the roof. We send yoga books and ideas for how to exercise in a small space to help people maintain their physical and mental wellbeing.
  9. Release: [SPOILER ALERT!]One inmate – named Taystee – doesn’t have anywhere to stay when she’s released on parole – she is forced to reoffend to ‘survive’ which, in her eyes, means going back to prison. Prisoners Abroad’s Resettlement team helps people to get back on their feet so that they can lead a life free of crime.

This drama is feisty, funny and terrifying in equal measure – and all of the time realistic. It has done a great job of raising awareness of imprisonment among a mainstream audience that is looking for more than something purely sensationalist or escapist.

Orange Is the New Black can be found on www.netflix.com.