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Don’t Drop The Soap: Isn’t Prison Entertaining?

Americans have a secret love affair with prison.

Despite the occasional shanking in the mess hall and rape in the shower, it’s the go to place for personal growth and camaraderie.

Obviously Orange is the New Black (ONB) has me thinking about this. And while I do greatly enjoy the show, it’s a bit disappointing just how much it hits all of the prison cliché.

But let’s first discuss the fact that we spend a lot of time thinking about prison even though most of us will never go to it, and if we know anyone who does go, it will be through six degrees of separation.

Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) from HBO’s Oz

The sheer number of movies and TV shows about prisons shows we have a preoccupation with the chance of going to going to jail — and it’s that we’re going to because we’re wrongly accused (The Shawshank Redemption), do the right thing in the heat of the moment (Con Air), or just do something stupid and receive an unnecessary sentence (The Longest Yard, 1974).

So in other words, there are always degrees of innocence with protagonists who find themselves in prison. And that’s our concern — despite being law-abiding citizen, we could still find ourselves in jail, or, just get a really bad break with the judge.

And to be fair, our concern with wrongful imprisonment transcends American culture — look at a novel like The Count of Monte Cristo.

The “do something stupid and receive an unnecessary sentence” scenario is the case with the Piper Chapman on ONB. After college she got caught up with the wrong crowd, briefly worked as a drug mule, goes on to live a decent life, and ten years later her past finally catches up with her. Despite turning her life around and living and becoming an upstanding citizen, she still needs to go to jail for something she did a lifetime ago.

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzoamaka Aduba) of Orange is the New Black.

Of course the show is based on a real person, but the real Piper didn’t have quite the extended timeline — she was indicted only several years after her criminal activity.

So we have this anxiety with unjust imprisonment. It’s something worth worrying about. How do we cope with it? Well, it turns out that prison isn’t that bad. In fact, if you put aside the personal safety issues, it’s kinda a positive experience. And this is where prison movies always have me gagging.

A chief offender is The Shawshank Redemption.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption

I know it’s everyone’s favorite movie, but it is the bromance movie to end all bromance movies. The film is like a parent telling their kid on the first day of school that school may not be fun, but they’re going to make great friends and have deeply meaningful relationships for the rest of their life. It’s really quite absurd.

And to be fair, Shawshank is hardly the only movie that’s guilty of this. Bonding and friendship is really the cornerstone of most prison movies. Going back to a movie like The Great Escape — it looks like those guys are having the time of their lives despite being POWs.

Maybe this does happen in prison — I’ve never been so I don’t know — but I’m skeptical that it’s really such a great bonding experience. And this is another cliché that ONB features.

Not only will we form deep, meaningful relationships in prison, but maybe, just maybe, we actually need to go to prison. Not because we’ve done something wrong, but there’s something wrong with us, and it can only be fixed by the prison experience.

Think about The Longest Yard.

Paul “Wrecking” Crewe (Burt Reynolds) in The Longest Yard

Crewe (Burt Reynolds), once a star NFL quarterback, is kicked out of the league for point shaving and becomes a has-been celebrity. In prison he reclaims a sense of self-worth by once again playing football and winning the admiration of other prisoners. Maybe a full reversal isn’t coming his way once he gets out of jail, but his depression and self-loathing as been swept away.

And again, ONB is also playing up this jailhouse trope.

Piper is so naive and lives in such a bubble (even while she was a drug mule) that prison is giving her a much-needed kick in the butt. It is kinda of amazing and offensive how the show turns the prison experience into an element of white privilege — all of the other women in prison are there for Piper’s personal growth. She’ll eventually get out and be a stronger person while they’ll spend the rest of their lives in and out of jail.

Of course I’d be remiss in not mentioning that another reason we love prison movies is that they’re a really easy setting to tell stories about individuals raging against institutional conformity (Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). ONB certainly takes this to heart, and a primary charm of the show is the individualism of the characters and the ways in which they are constantly bucking the authority of the prison administrations.

Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor),  Grossberger (Erland van Lidth de Jeude ) and Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) in Stir Crazy.

There are just so many neat people in prison that who wouldn’t want to spend a few months there?

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