Orange Is the New Black: The real American prison

The new season of the women’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black was recently released from Netflix. The show is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman who spent fifteen months in federal prison on drug smuggling and money laundering charges.

Taylor Schilling plays Piper in Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, which is based on Piper Kerman's memoir of her year in prison. (Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix)

Taylor Schilling plays Piper in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year in prison. (Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix)

The memoir brings to light the fate of the many women in prison due to overzealous sentencing during the War on Drugs. Good research paper topics for your political science course could be the U.S. prison system and women in prison.

America: The world’s largest incarcerator

According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2009, the U.S. incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 population is the highest in the world. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.

The Department of Justice’s 2012 report showed that there are 2.3 million people in prison or jail in the United States, with nearly 7 million people involved in the U.S. correctional system as a whole (encompassing probation, parole, in prison or jail), which equals 1 in 35 U.S. adults (or 2.9% of the adult resident population). Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.

America’s War on Drugs

The growth in incarceration is blamed on the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, also known as the War on Drugs, under President Richard Nixon. The three-strikes law, longer prison sentences for nonviolent offenses, drug related charges and policies that disproportionately affected African Americans contribute to America’s high incarceration rate.

Who are the women in American prisons?

According to the Sentencing Project, the number of American women in prison grew 646% between 1980 and 2010 to a total of more than 205,000 in prison and jail. This growth was almost 1.5 times the rate for men (419%). Two-thirds of women in prison are women of color. The top crimes for women in prison are drug and property offenses.

“The harsh punitive thrust of current criminal law doctrine and policy adversely affects many African American women whose poverty, physical and sexual victimization, and drug-related problems are substantial contributing factors in their incarceration,” said Paula C. Johnson in the book Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison, 2003. “African American women are treated in disparate and disparaging ways at virtually all stages of criminal justice system operation,” including automatically suspected of being criminals, said Johnson.

Conditions in American prisons

In the first season of Orange Is the New Black, the show addressed bad food and cell cleanliness. The second season will address inoperative plumbing, unsanitary conditions and correctional corruption. These issues reflect real life conditions at prisons across the country.

The Riverhead correctional facility in Suffolk County, New York, was used to film several scenes of the television show. After brown water came out of the real prison’s showers and toilets backed up human sewage, the New York Civil Liberties Union decided to use recognition from the show to launch the “Humanity Is the New Black” campaign to highlight plumbing problems at Riverhead.

“This is really unhealthy from top to bottom,” N.Y.C.L.U. staff attorney Corey Stoughton told Ruth Margalit in “The Disgusting Jail on ‘Orange Is the New Black,’” posted June 8, 2014, in The New Yorker. “You add up the daily task of living in that environment, and it’s just beyond what any human being should have to bear,” said Stoughton.

Reform the prison system

In an interview in “Behind ‘The New Black’: The Real Piper’s Prison Story” on the NPR radio program Fresh Air, on August 12, 2013, Piper Kerman offered her advice on how to reform the American prison system: “The thing that is most important is to send fewer people to prison in the first place. Prisons have a really limited capacity to rehabilitate as they currently exist, and it would take tremendous change for correctional institutions to actually function as rehabilitative places.”

She added: “Thomas Mott Osborne was this famous prison reformer back in the 1800s, and he once said, ‘Let us change this prison from a scrap heap to a repair shop.’ Unfortunately, that’s not how our prisons and jails function in this country.”

Check out’s Politics and Government and Sociology and Anthropology libraries for more information on America’s prison system and women in prison.

What ideas do you have to reform America’s prison system? Tell us in the comments.

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