Warning: minor spoilers from here on out.
During one of the flashbacks in the new season of Orange Is the New Black, a teenager is threatening to jump off the roof of his high school while a crowd of fellow students gathers below him.
"I'm failing Math and Western Civ!" he wails.
Someone deep within the throng of onlookers yells back, "We're all failing Western Civ!"
It's a funny line uttered by a faceless stranger, but the blink-and-you'll-miss-it sentiment encapsulates so much of what the Netflix series is about, from the fact that the number of women in prison has grown an astounding 800 percent over the past three decades, to the revelation that it took a Trojan horse—as show creator Jenji Kohan called the Caucasian, blond character of Piper Chapman, based on the real-life memoir by Piper Kerman—to get viewers to care about stories that center around incarcerated black, Latina, and older women.
While last season centered on a conventional "Big Bad" television trope in the form of the nasty, manipulative Vee, the new episodes take a quieter, more intimate approach to storytelling. Struggles concerning motherhood in all its various forms and contexts are the central theme that ties everything together. (So far, that is—Netflix only released the first six episodes for review.) The premiere even kicks off with Litchfield hosting a Mother's Day event, where children of inmates are allowed on the grounds for a party in the yard, planting the seeds for storylines to come.
Considering that more than half of the women in prison are mothers of children under the age of 18 (according to the last available data, which dates back to 2007), it's about time the show took a deep dive into the subject.
During visiting hours, even tiny kids were expected to remain still in their chairs.
"It was really refreshing to see that we were tackling motherhood, because we hadn't done that," said actress Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza, head of the prison kitchen and a mother figure in her own right to the Latina population at Litchfield. In the new season, we discover that she hasn't seen her son Benito in two and half years, and when she insists that he finally visit, we're introduced to a surly brat of a teenager, a far cry from the adorable tyke we met during Mendoza's flashback episode last season. In an effort to make him get his act together, Mendoza demands that he start visiting every week to do his homework in front of her, but Benny has no way of making the long trip up to Litchfield on a regular basis. Gloria works out an arrangement with Sophia (Laverne Cox) for their sons to make the trek together, and it sounds like things go south from there.
"I have a scene that I shot with Laverne that was exhausting and very draining," Leyva told me over the phone. "I'm curious to see how that's going to play itself off. But it's a really crucial and very important scene for both of our characters and all our journeys as mothers. You're going to get to see how it kind of unravels and she starts her own lashing out. Its like, 'Uh oh, Momma's upset,' so that sort of trickles down through her jail daughters."
The mother of a pre-teen herself, Leyva has the upmost empathy for women in Mendoza's position. "I know that it means the world to [my daughter] to be able to come home after a day of mini-dramas in her life and be able to discuss them with me," she said. "I can only imagine how hard, how horrific it is for Gloria's children on the outside. Even though they're being taken care of by a relative, it's not easy."
A former real-life inmate named Joanne Archibald emphatically agreed. She told me she's a fan of OITNB, but believes that the show's treatment of motherhood "has been one of their weak points." Archibald's personal story, oddly enough, mirrors many of the same elements of Piper Chapman's. While in college, Archibald got busted carrying drugs over state lines for someone she was close to, never thinking that there would be any real consequences to her actions. (Another depressing prison fact: Two-thirds of incarcerated women are there for nonviolent offenses.) After getting caught at an airport she was sentenced to one year and one day in a federal prison, just as her infant son was turning seven months old.
Archibald was 24 at the time and got uncommonly lucky with her childcare. "I had a close friend who did an amazing thing for me," she said over the phone. "She offered to move to the town the prison was in [to help raise the baby]. She went from being footloose and fancy free to caring for an infant in a town where she didn't know anybody except me in the prison."
It's an almost unheard-of situation, and one based on an intense level of devotion on her friend's part. Because of it, Archibald was able to maintain a semblance of a relationship with her son for that formative year of his life. Not that it was simple. During visiting hours, even tiny kids were expected to remain still in their chairs.
"To get a toddler to sit for an hour or two is not that easy!" she said. "They want to move around, and you get scolded. Guards say, 'If you can't make them stay still, they are going to have to leave.'"
Then there was the mandatory strip search after each visit. "Some people would have their family members leave early to avoid having to stand in line after they left, which was the worst." Archibald described the queue as eerily silent, everyone waiting to be physically humiliated while reflecting on loved ones now gone from the premises.
"There were some officers who you could tell did not want to be doing it," she said. "But some of them really seemed like they enjoyed humiliating you and dragging it out. It was pretty gross."
The process was traumatic enough for some of Archibald's fellow inmates to ask family members to stop visiting altogether, to avoid having to repeat the experience on a regular basis. The guards exercise control while mothers lose theirs, and on OITNB, that feeling of helplessness often spills over into relationships with other inmates.
For Mendoza, Levya said, "She's taken all these women and girls and decided, 'I'm going to take care of them, I'm going to do what I can't do for my kids on the outside.' And she needs that, she needs to take care of them, in order to remain almost sane."
Speaking of prisons, did you know there are some in Indiana that are allowing some inmates to order pizza and takeout?
In Archibald's case, her son's caretaker did her best to make her feel included in the process of raising him. "She really worked it out for me so that I still felt like I had some control when in fact I had none," she said. "Like if he got a cold, she would ask what she should do. I knew that she knew what to do."
Today, Archibald works for womenandprison.org, collecting personal stories from current and former inmates, as well as cataloging news about women's experiences in the criminal justice system. And Leyva does a lot of work with Women's Prison Association.
"At the start of the school year, we make sure that we have backpacks filled with supplies for women who are in the program who have children that are going off to school," she said.
If you're truly a fan of OITNB, do yourself a favor and explore these organizations for better sense of the real world behind the show, or better yet, donate some time or money to their cause. Consider it a little extra credit to keep from failing Western Civ.
The new season of Orange Is the New Black premiered yesterday on Netflix. To learn more about Women and Prison, a website, installation, and zine created entirely from the work and lives of America's incarcerated women, check out their website. To find out about Women's Prison Association, a support group for women at all stages of criminal-justice involvement, click here.
Joshua Lyon is the author of Pill Head. Follow him on Twitter.