Orange is the New Black and Recidivism: The Need for Accurate Media Representations of the Many Causes of Incarceration

By Guest Contributor:Rachel Ko

About 50,000 people a year exit incarceration only to enter immediately into homeless shelters; legal restrictions and discrimination against individuals with criminal records are often to blame. As has been well-documented, the incarceration rate for African Americans is more than six times the incarceration rate for white Americans. African Americans also make up more than 40 percent of the homeless population, despite representing only 13 percent of the general population.

Even though general statistics don’t simultaneously track the effects of race on incarceration and homelessness, anti-Black racial stigma amplifies the measurable social impacts of both. Individuals released from prisons are more likely to be re-arrested for misdemeanor offense they commit in order to survive on the streets, but many scholars have failed to sufficiently connect recidivism, homelessness and incarceration.

A more successful representation of these connections is the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Through Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, a compassionate, intelligent, and likeable African American character, Orange is the New Black sheds light on the lack of rehabilitative resources and support systems that cause re-incarceration of individuals suffering from poverty. Taystee’s story shows us that crime is not a single action; rather, it is a series of events and complex social factors.

The interconnectedness of race, incarceration, and employment are rarely demonstrated accurately through media, since many TV shows like Cops portray African American as solely violent criminals, thus exacerbating biases against the Black community. Orange is the New Black is an important exception since it utilizes actors of various races to accurately characterize the diversity of a federal female prison. The show’s protagonist Piper Chapman is a white female sentenced to 15 months for transporting drug money, and the show also features other white, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian female prisoners (while accurately representing the racial imbalance of prison populations that disproportionately affects people of color).

Taystee’s story shows us that crime is not a single action; rather, it is a series of events and complex social factors.

Viewers learn so much about Taystee because the show provides backstories for each character, to explain not only the crime that sent them to prison, but also their lives beyond prison. For example, Taystee has been “in the system” since she was 16. Taystee grew up in a foster home, before being adopted by Vee, who convinces young Taystee to sell drugs. Even though the show doesn’t explicitly state why Taystee was arrested at a young age, we assume it was related to dealing drugs. In prison, Taystee has various jobs that require responsibility and her impressive math skills, including working in the library and as secretary for the warden. She knows little about the world beyond prison, but is portrayed as intelligent, amiable, loyal, and deferential. She even displays her sense of justice and righteousness by standing up to Vee, when Vee is sent to the same prison and employs violence and manipulation to sell drugs all over again.

When Taystee is released from prison, however, she struggles to find housing and doesn’t have any choice except to return to Vee’s circle of heroin dealers. A few months later, Taystee is back in prison. Viewers see that she chooses to return to prison, since she doesn’t have anyone to rely on or anywhere else to go.

The show therefore connects homelessness with recidivism in ways scholarship rarely does. Dominated by significant empirical inquiry on single causal contributors to social barriers facing African-Americans with a history of incarceration, this body of work often fails to consider the interrelationship of such contributors. A review of existing studies on employment, ability to find housing, and African-Americans with a history of incarceration reveals how each factor amplifies the measurable social impacts of the others, implying a chain of cumulative causation. In particular, the stigmatizing impact of incarceration increases the chance of homelessness, divorce and unemployment. This suggests that the stigma associated with incarceration prevents those who have been incarcerated from obtaining employment and becoming economically stable, which in turn increases their chance of homelessness. The economic and social prospects of African Americans are cumulatively worsened by the compounded stigma associated with race and incarceration, inducing recidivism. Connecting this conclusion to pre-existing studies on the effects of race on incarceration sheds light on how race often worsens the stigma of incarceration, by making it harder for African-Americans to find employment or housing relative to members of other racial groups with similar social profiles.

There is a common misconception that people who commit crimes are inherently evil and that there’s no way to “fix” them. However, Orange is the New Black presents empathetic characters grappling with the complicated sociological and economic factors that influence crime. Mass media representations have immense power over public opinion, so TV shows, movies and articles must accurately represent the racial disparity of prison populations and fuller lives beyond criminal behavior. Doing so allows the audience to more fully assess systemic situations without bias or preconceived notions.

Even though it’s crucial for us to know the consequences of committing crime, it is just as important to understand the complicated causation that leads to crime in the first place. Therefore, rather than reinforcing a culture of recidivism by neglecting individuals who have made mistakes, we must celebrate the human ability to change for the better. In order to work toward creating the kind of society that we desire, the media and researchers must accurately represent the prison population as well as the sociological and economic factors that prompt criminal behavior. By focusing on intersectionality, scholars can analyze the compounding effect of race on incarceration, employment, and homelessness, thus helping us to understand complex causes to be addressed in future research and policy.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Rachel Ko is an independent scholar studying the effect of racial stigma on recidivism among African Americans. Her work has previously been accepted for presentation at Annual Meeting of the Mid-America Alliance for African Studies; 42nd Annual National Council for Black Studies Conference at the Centre for Law and Culture of St Mary’s University; and 3rd Annual History Research Symposium at Tuskegee University.

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