The show draws no distinction between inmates, prison guards, corporate overlords, and family members in its thesis that everyone has the capacity to do terrible things, whatever their background or religion or financial status. Prison guards deal drugs and assault inmates; CEOs send hate-crime victims to solitary confinement out of vindictiveness; therapists abuse their power to get revenge on women. The show’s universe would be bleak and utterly unsatisfactory if it weren’t for its acknowledgment of the one thing that enables humans to transcend their earthly frailties: kindness.
Piper’s understanding of prison as a mirror that magnifies its inmates’ personalities, warts and all, is part of what makes the show so compelling for viewers. Litchfield is both a goldfish bowl and a pressure cooker, amplifying everyday slights and squabbles and injustices by a factor of 1,000. With very little else for inmates to focus on, minor disagreements lead to near-fatal altercations, while corporate tweaks intended to increase profits after the prison is privatized result in drastic reductions in prisoners’ quality of life. Where better than a prison, therefore, to explore the endless foibles of humankind?
Still, the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, and its team of writers are tireless in their insistence that there’s no difference in morality between the women of Litchfield and the people outside. Early on in season three, Flaca (Jackie Cruz) is shown in a flashback to have been incarcerated after she sold fake LSD at school. A few episodes later, Piper’s sister-in-law, Neri (Tracee Chimo), who’s been drafted in to help sell panties worn by inmates, gets frustrated with the slow pace of production and starts experimenting with ways to fake the goods. Similarly, there’s little difference between the way Piper exploits prisoners for their worn underwear and the way the fictional brand Whispers exploits inmates by paying them $1 an hour to manufacture the very same garments.
Society, the show points out, is irrevocably broken when institutions can legally profit from the same behavior that gets individuals locked up. The chief antagonist of season three isn’t a vengeful, Bible-bashing Face of Meth or a drug-dealing, manipulative gangster—it’s the system itself. More specifically, it’s MCC, the corporation that purchases Litchfield and immediately starts cutting costs to maximize its profits while the prisoners suffer in myriad ways. Guards have their hours cut and lose their benefits, which means new, poorly trained guards are put in situations they can’t handle. Food is purchased pre-made in bags instead of prepared fresh in the kitchens. Prisoners have to sleep on metal beds without mattresses and books in the library aren’t replaced after a bedbug infestation requires that everything be incinerated. The prisoners respond by seeking solace in religion (the cult of Norma), in art (Suzanne’s sci-fi porn and Red’s gourmet dinners), in the pursuit of profit (Piper’s panty business), and in sex and drugs (Poussey’s hooch, Nicky’s reassuring stash of heroin). But not one of them tries to institute change—they’re ground down enough by the system to know that any such attempts would be futile.