Pen Pals

‘Orange Is the New Black’ Through the Eyes of an Ex-Con

By Bert Burykill

Even before I got locked up, I enjoyed reading and watching prison-centric shit, 'cause like many people I’m fascinated by the subculture of the incarcerated. I’m not quite sure why so many people either sympathize with the so-called bad guys or simply get off on watching other humans suffer, but they definitely do. Now that I’ve done some time, I realize that prison-centric entertainment usually ratchets up the absurd and outlandish aspects to the point where I can’t even relate, 'cause my experiences were so drastically different than what’s on the tube. Luckily, there’s Netflix's new show, Orange Is the New Black, based on the experiences of a woman who did a little time, so not only do we get the ridiculous entertainment that we all crave, we also get some very realistic characters going through tribulations that I can relate to as an ex-con. Shame on me for stereotyping the sexes, but the fact that this show was created by a woman and is based on the experiences of a woman means we get a lot more feelings than we usually do with prison stories. This is a good thing, though, 'cause dudes go through the same emotions in jail. I’ve seen it many times, but you won’t see it too often on the screen in the same way Orange Is the New Black captures it.

It's a damn good show, and I know this because I’ve been told so by many people. It’s even getting more love than Arrested Development, at least in my very, very small circle of friends. That has actually been making me a touch paranoid, because I don't know if everyone I see on a day-to-day basis knows my status as an ex-con. One of my bosses said the other day, “Have you seen this new show, Orange Is the New Black? It’s really good... I think you’d like it.” I was like, Oh shit, he must know, but who cares? He actually enjoys the show, which is good, 'cause the show succeeds admirably in depicting at least a few fairly normal people who got locked up over some bullshit.

The show is based on Piper Kerman’s 2011 memoir, which was about how she got caught up laundering money while she was hooking up with a lesbian heroin queenpin, then got put in the clink-clink for it a decade later. There are a bunch of similarities between her story and mine, actually: we both were living upper-middle-class lives and attending elite colleges before we decided that money, drugs, and the freedom they afforded us was a way to escape our mundanity. I think her activities were more hands-off and lasted for a shorter time than mine did, and while I was caught in the act, she unfortunately got snitched on nearly a decade later. She also did her time and then actually finished parole like a good girl, whereas I have allowed myself to get sucked back into the abyss again and again for damn near a decade.

Point is, she was a bit of an anomaly when she was inside, just like me, which gives us a little different perspective on things. The life of the character based on her reminds me of my situation in some ways. I tried to remain anonymous for the most part, but once an inmate found out I was educated or went to college, they’d usually call me “College Boy” or some such shit.

It’s very tricky to condense years of jail and prison experiences down into an hour-long episode or even a 13-hour season, but Orange Is the New Black did a phenomenal job of keeping shit relevant and realistic. I’ll give you an example: there is a game that more street people love to play on more suburban folks like myself, and a scene in OITNB captured this fantastically in a scene when a couple in Poussay and the fat black chick run up on Piper and basically say, “Yo! Run yo’ shoes!” and then when Piper steps up stone-faced like, “WHAT?!? You better back off!” the street chicks crack up like, “Hahaha! Did you see her face?” People love playing this fake-aggressive game in prison, but it doesn’t always end so friendly. It can be dangerous to play too much in jail. I’ve seen some real dumb fights over dumb shit… The show doesn’t really capture the dumb fights, and I feel like women’s prisons might have a lot of dumb, hot-headed, catty fights, but maybe I’m just being a sexist asshole…

What I dig most is the character development and the fact that everyone seems real enough to identify with. For the most part, they’re humans first and prisoners second. You can see this through the backstories we get with a handful of them. The Tricia character played by Madeline Brewer nails a certain breed often found in jail—the lost soul who is clearly a good person but got dealt a bad hand, couldn’t deal with life, and turned to drugs and all that bad stuff. This is a very common story. The whole part with the guard Mendez abusing her I don’t know about though. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of COs are scumbags, and a bunch have been convicted of abusing inmates... But cartoonishly evil COs aren’t all that common.

Pennsyltucky, the Christian fundamentalist played by Taryn Manning, is fuckin’ awesome, but at the same time basically a cartoon character, just like Mendez. At times I find her performance brilliant, but then a second later it’s over-the-top clown stuff. I will say she does represent a very real contingent in prison. The religious freaks are there, they’re crazy as hell, and there are a lot of them. One thing I noticed is that while both Mendez and Pennsyltucky pull some fucked-up shit, they also make us laugh, and at times we almost feel bad for them. Like maybe no one in this system is really at fault, and everyone might be a victim of an unfortunate reality.

I wish I wrote for this series, or something like it. I actually contacted Piper Kerman when I was filming the documentary about my life a year ago—my idea was to interview her for the movie to show another person similar to me in this war-on-drugs world. She happens to live near my neighborhood in Brooklyn and was happy to meet me and discuss how to write a book and be a successful writer but (understandably) didn’t want to be part of our movie. I was excited to meet her and figure out the best way to follow in her footsteps, but then I got locked up on some bullshit for a few months and forgot about it. I couldn’t be happier now that the show based on her life is a success—she’s an example of someone who got thrown in prison for no damn reason and got back on her feet postincarceration. Most importantly, her story is providing the world with a respectful interpretation of what happens behind bars for a lot of us. Hopefully, it will change a lot of people’s perception of what prison in the USA is really all about, and I applaud the shit out of her.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: Some Advice for a Sex Offender on His Way to Prison

Comments