*Warning* Article contains Spoilers – if you have not completed the latest Orange is the New Black season please save the read for later!
Orange Is The New Black(OITNB) has become a fan favorite in the homes of millions. Millions of what I can assume are individuals who have never seen the inside of a jail or prison, or live every day with the fear of being put there unjustly. We watch for the joy of character development, the wittiness of the writing, of the knowledge that it is based on some truths of Piper’s story, for what we think is an inside glimpse into the other side of the fence. But mostly it’s a good reminder of the things we’ll hopefully never experience. And hopefully, as we watch, we realize that the divides shown within the prison population, race, religion, sexuality, is real, both inside and outside those walls.
The Bureau of Justice released statistics on the disparities of criminal justice instances where POC, specifically Black Americans receive more unjust treatment than their White counterparts. For example, If you are Black, you are 3x as likely to have your car searched, twice as likely to be arrested for drug crimes, more likely to be unable to afford bail and remain in jail awaiting sentencing, 13% more likely to have plea deals include jail time, and prison sentences tended to be at least 10% longer than their white counterparts for the same crime.
And that’s only the non-violent discrepancies. Now it is true that by numbers, there may be more White individuals killed by police than Black individuals in a timeframe, but that isn’t adjusted for population size. Estimated statistics have it anywhere from 5-21% more likely to be shot by a police officer if you’re Black than if you’re White. Making up 6% of the population, Black men make up 40% of the population of killed while unarmed. Again, with close to 2,000 people killed a year, there will absolutely be White individuals in there, but we have to look at the larger issue which remains as institutionalized racism.
So why am I talking about OITNB? After all, the statistics should be interesting enough(If you hold this article to your ear you can hear my students groan), I don’t need to bring in a TV show. The thing is, I was impressed this season with the depth of darkness that the characters went through. Office Healey, our resident MSW who could use some cultural competency(another article for another time) had a suicide attempt. Our badass Voss helped kill and bury a hitman. Fan favorite Nikki displayed the constant struggle with addiction, but the show went so much deeper. Poussey, my personal favorite character died this season in what is striking similar to deaths within the Black Community with the utilization of excessive or unreasonable force. Yes, it was in the midst of a peaceful protest turned confrontational. And in this case the guard was young, new, and fighting off another inmate who was attacking him, yet that move, the move that killed Poussey was known to him, he was taught it as a method to be used, even though his target was a tiny girl not resisting. So when the situation escalated, or because he was not trained enough to be well-equip to handle the situation, she died for nothing.
The shift within the prison guard population is new this season as well. Previously, the guards were seemingly average townspeople who worked at the prison. With a corporate privately owned prison take over, we see a new force come in. A militaristic one. The training and the responses of these individuals are geared for combat. And while there are many times within prisons, these techniques might save lives, we’re still saying that locked up criminals, even in a minimum security prison, with mostly non-violent offenders requires a military presence instead of guardians. We already dehumanize them, but we also inflate their capacity for danger by linking things like drug-related crimes, racketeering, and embezzling to murderers and rapists.
Hauntingly we watched as she suffocated, unable to breathe. You almost expected her to utter Garner’s infamous last words “I can’t breathe.” And we all held our breaths. Then we switch off Netflix and turn on the news to watch the latest stories unfold of multiple Black individuals shot and killed. One for selling music, reaching for a wallet, another in an altercation with an off-duty cop- possibly road rage induced. And do we hold our breath then?
We need a systematic change, one that begins with an acknowledgement that there is an issue occurring. Cognitive dissonance can only occur until awareness steps in. We need our police, and for the largest majority they treasure the duty of protect and serve to the fullest extent. But we need to stop militarizing and begin teaching more cultural competency, more non-lethal techniques, more ways to deescalate. And we need accountability for those who cannot justify their actions. Cameras is most certainly a well-researched and proven method for reducing these instances, but it must be within the training as well. Will there always be instances where a killing occurs without justification and the cop acted fully within the lines of authority but something occurred? Of course. But we can do more to lessen this. We must do more to protect individuals of color from the outrageous discrepancies happening daily. All children should be taught to respect police, but should never be in fear of them. The only ones who should fear police are criminals, but even then it shouldn’t be fear of their life. Yes, All lives matter, yes Cop’s lives matter, that does not take away from the very real truth that we need to be focusing on thousands of deaths each year of POC simply because of their race. When that changes, maybe we can all breathe again.
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