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By Carl Stoffers
Compared with what I used to do for a living, this assignment from my editors at The Marshall Project was simple: Binge-watch the third season of Orange Is the New Black and tell us what you think. They had two reasons for choosing me. One: I had never seen the show and had no preconceived notions about characters or plot. Two: Before I was a reporter, I was a corrections officer.
For about three years, I worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections at ASPC-Lewis, a men's prison outside Phoenix. But because of staffing shortages, I occasionally filled in at the women's prison, ASPC-Perryville.
To say there are differences between women’s and men’s prisons would be an understatement. Unlike the women, the men strictly segregate themselves by race. Gangs are everywhere, tension is ever-present, and explosive violence often follows prolonged periods of boredom and monotony.
As a male CO working in a women’s unit, you not only have to watch for violence, but you have to worry about being set up — accused of doing or saying something you didn’t. The older guys in the department referred to Perryville as a “trick bag,” and for good reason.
There were occasional themes and moments in Orange Is the New Black that struck me as authentic, but for the most part it takes broad creative liberty in portraying the culture of inmates and staff in a correctional facility. After all, its popularity doesn’t depend on strict adherence to the reality of prison life.
Also, this post is filled with spoilers.