Orange Is The New Black's ICE & Private Prisons Storyline Dramatizes A Very Serious Reality

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: There are some spoilers ahead.
The latest and final season of Orange Is the New Black dives headfirst into one of the most heated subjects in American politics as we’re taken to a brand new branch at Litchfield prison: a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center.
The storyline that runs through the entire season hits incredibly close to home for much of the country, as ICE raids continue to happen all across the country and detention centers continue to be a news topic. And even though OITNB is telling a fictional story, the show’s suggestion that there are ICE detention facilities connected to private prisons is not a convenient narrative: It's real.
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How ICE Became Part Of The OITNB Story
At the end of season 6 we were given the hint that ICE would factor into OITNB's final season when Blanca (Laura Gómez) was released from prison early and immediately got detained. At the beginning of season 7, we meet back up with Martiza (Diane Guerrero), who was absent from season 6, and she’s now a free woman and living a cushy life in New York City. But, after a nightclub she’s at is raided by ICE, she’s detained (she doesn’t have her ID on her) and later learns that her mother lied to her: She wasn’t actually born in America.
Blanca and Martiza try to work together while detained to contact legal representation on the outside to try and help them. They also turn to the ICE kitchen staff — which includes familiar faces like Red (Kate Mulgrew), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Flaca (Jackie Cruz), and Maria (Jessica Pimentel) — who try to help them out as much as possible, giving out information and phone numbers to people who might be able to assist the detainees.
What Litchfield's History Taught Us About Private Prisons
When OITNB first started, Litchfield wasn't a private prison; however, in season 3 it was acquired by a private prison company called PolyCon Corrections. We learn quickly that the biggest difference between public and private prisons is money and how it's spent, usually with an eye for profit.
As the show suggests, private prisons don’t have to report their goings on to anyone, so they can operate with less direct oversight than a government run facility. Maybe even more upsetting is the fact that private prisons aren’t covered in the Freedom of Information Act, which means that they don’t have to supply any information to inquiring citizens.
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Another point of contention is the fact that private prisons are for-profit, paid for the number of inmates in their care, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that means educational programs are often cut. We saw something similar happen on Orange Is The New Black when many prison programs — and even the kitchen food — were slashed to reduce costs and increase profit. If you want first-hand detail of what it’s actually like in at least one private prison, Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer spent four months working undercover at one and his claims are incredible and disheartening.
What Private Prisons Have To Do With ICE
The Department of Justice was actually trying to slowly phase out the use of private prisons in 2016, and sent out a memo detailing that,
“As each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population. This is the first step in the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons. While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security, and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.”
Unfortunately, that “unexpected need” arose in the form of ICE detention facilities. The number varies from day to day, but at one point, over 50,000 people were reportedly being detained, according a Daily Beast report published in March of 2019.
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The CEO of CoreCivic, a private prison company which currently has a contract for $280 million with ICE according to USASpending.gov, reportedly told the company's investors that this is “the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years, not only on the federal side with the dynamics with ICE and Marshals, but also with these activities on the stateside.”
Which Brings Us To OITNB Season 7's Version Of An ICE Detention Center
During season 7, the detainees on OITNB are brought to basically a giant room filled with bunk beds, where they sleep crowded on top of each other with little to no privacy and guards who could care less about watching over them. Blanca and Martiza try to make a phone call to a lawyer outside, but, you have to pay to use the phones in the center, and no one has any money on hand for a calling card (and when they do find the means to make a call, the machine is broken).
If you think the communication issues might just be a stretch to add drama, you might not like what you're about to read. According to The Texas Tribune, even when everything is working, these calls can be incredibly expensive; calls from an ICE detention facility in Texas can reportedly “top 20 cents per minute.” Also, the ACLU sued ICE in 2016 over phone calls that allegedly cost “anywhere from $3.75 to $9.50 for a 10-minute long-distance call within California.”
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On the show, Fig (Alysia Reiner) — who oversees the ICE facility — learns that one pregnant detainee was raped and doesn’t want to have her rapist's child. When Fig brings up the prospects of transferring her to the doctor for an abortion, the fictional ICE agents scoff. This, too, is a real issue detailed in a recent New York Times article about women detained by ICE fighting for their own reproductive rights.
And while OITNB O.G. Blanca is actually able to argue her immigration case and is released as a free woman back into the United States, others aren’t so lucky. Martiza, who can’t produce any legal documentation to prove she’s a citizen, is deported in the middle of the night with only the clothes on her back. We probably don't need to explain that the deportation part of season 7 is real. But it also has to be noted that this storyline hits incredibly close for Guerrero, as her parents were deported back to Colombia, suddenly, when she was just 14 years old.
So yes, OITNB is a fictional TV series, but the ideas that guide season 7 are anything but.
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