‘Orange Is the New Black’: Final season is its most political

Orange Is the New Black has become a fan favorite on Netflix, being the most downloaded series on that platform. The final season of this popular franchise is its most overtly political. For those who may not be familiar, the series was based on the real-life story and memoir of a normally law-abiding young woman who finds herself having to serve a year and a half in a minimum-security women’s prison. She was sentenced for a non-violent drug-money smuggling offense.

The final season of 13 episodes, produced by Tilted Productions, created by Jenji Kohan, is based on the 2010 memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, by Piper Kerman.

The show explores issues of mass incarceration in for-profit prisons, mass deportations, drug policy, and immigration “reform.” There is specific mention of the policy changes implemented by the Trump administration. One of the most evocative aspects of the final season is its dovetailing with the actual, real-life experience of its actors. Diane Guerro, for example, is cast as the very popular character Maritza Ramos. In the final season, her character is deported to Colombia, as she had not been born in the U.S., which she had previously believed. In reality, Diane’s parents and older brother were deported to Colombia when she was only fourteen. As a young girl, born in New Jersey, she was able to remain in Boston. She soon took up acting, and now is a very prominent advocate for fundamental changes to immigration policy in the U.S.

There was also a poignant depiction of another aspect of immigration practices: The final season depicts children, including babies (!), having to defend themselves in immigration court, without legal counsel. There is also a tearful depiction of an obscene aspect of Trump doctrine. When one young woman was deported, her children, separated from her at the border, were fostered, then adopted, by an American family.  Although sometimes difficult to watch, the final season reflects the reality that many parents in that position now face. Parallels could be drawn to the kidnapping of radical detainees’ children by the Argentine junta in the 1970s and giving them to military families.

In this final season, there is a representation of what actually happens to many ex-convicts once they are released from prison. For example, many are obliged to pay for their own drug-testing. They often have difficulties finding employment, due to their status. One character is portrayed as obtaining a full-time job in a nursing home upon her release from prison. Despite the fact that she worked full-time, she had to live and sleep in a “tent city” for people experiencing homelessness. With a lack of genuine opportunities, many parolees turn to illegal means of raising money. The series does not romanticize or glorify behavior; it merely illustrates why so many marginalized people turn to criminal acts when their legitimate earning capacity is destroyed by stigma.

One of the aspects of for-profit prisons explored in this season is the constant attempts to cut out all rehabilitative programs within American prisons as a part of cost-cutting initiatives. When correctional systems are contracted out to the private sector, there is a complete abandonment of even a pretense that prisons serve to rehabilitate offenders. As governments, particularly in the U.S., “get tough on crime,” they enact mandatory custodial sentences, which then leads to increased profits for their corporate friends.

One of the most exciting facts of this season is its depiction of ongoing lesbian relationships in a refreshing manner. The principal character, Piper Chapman, is shown to develop intense feelings for a fellow inmate, Alex, with whom she has a long emotional tie. They go on to be “prison married,” and to try to live their lives together. Piper was, fortunately, able to get early parole, while Alex remained incarcerated. They found love in probably the worst place they will ever face. A female prison guard is shown to develop an attraction for Alex. When she realizes that Alex was committed to Piper, the guard conspires to have Alex transferred to another prison out of her state. The attempt to end the relationship fails, as Piper leaves her home and travels extensively in order to be with her still imprisoned partner. The series does not romanticize or reify their relationship but rather shows them as real people with real lives.

The series also realistically explores the very reactionary roles played by some correctional officers in prisons. When a young Black woman is promoted to warden, many of the white guards do everything they can to undermine her position. Many guards clearly are also sadistic and abusive, including forcing some inmates into drug smuggling and trafficking within the prison.

Popular culture generally reflects the dominant ideology in capitalist countries. Many Marxists also note that there can be elements of profound resistance in popular culture. It is within this spirit of resistance that Orange Is the New Black needs to be celebrated.


Brian W. Major
Brian W. Major

Brian Major has worked in the field of community mental health and addictions for 15 years, being clean and sober himself for over 23 years. Brian is a member of the Communist Party of Canada in Barrie, Ontario.