Families of the Incarcerated and Racism in 205: “Low Self Esteem City”

Vaughn “Vee” Parker and Gloria Mendoza rise to duel: among feces-ridden bathroom floors and highly-salted cafeteria trays, the two fight for racial dominance in Litchfield’s fishbowl. Aside from the politics within prison, the politics outside of prison prevent the women from seeing their children and developing and/or maintaining healthy parental relationships and attachments to their families. Family, expectations, furlough, racism, and misogyny are discussed.


Children of Prisoners

As we learned in the season premiere, prisoners can be moved at any time to any location in the United States without warning. This creates the possibility of the prisoners leaving family — often parents, spouses, and children — behind. We learn that Maritza is missing her daughter’s first birthday; she hardly sees her daughter due to her location; Gloria Mendoza’s children are both in Florida and New York, both locations making it impossible for visitation. Elizabeth Gaynes in the ReEntry manual for prisoners and families, asserts:

The mere fact of separation negatively impacts prisoners and their families, who may also be frightened by the law enforcement system, bewildered by the court system, and insulted by the prison system. They are often hurt or angry at their incarcerated family members both for the underlying behaviors that led to their imprisonment and for the impact of the arrest and incarceration itself — which may include monetary loss due to legal expenses and reduced family income, embarrassment surrounding publicity related to the crime, and additional financial and emotional stress. (44)

We have seen this in season one when Dayanara was taking on her Aleida’s (her mother’s) responsibilities; she was resentful and bitter toward her mother for their situation. Clearly Aleida’s actions impacted Daya, for she amplified the preexisting situation by landing in jail herself. Gaynes reports:

The consequences of a parent’s incarceration resonate throughout a child’s life and may ultimately undermine his or her ability to be a productive adult. More than half of incarcerated juveniles and one-third of adults in jail or prison have immediate family members who have also been incarcerated, suggesting a cycle of destructive behavior and imprisonment that rolls through a family’s history. (45)

We know that Taystee is not biologically related to Vee Parker; however, it was through her influence that Taystee ended up in jail. She often refers to herself as a “child of the system,” and a child of the system she is. Gaynes states

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in the United States today nearly 2 million children under the age of 18 have at least one parent in prison or jail, although this number is likely to be significantly higher. Across America, one child in 40 has an incarcerated father. For  black children, it is nearly 1 in 14. Given the churning of prison and jail populations, it is reasonable to estimate that more than 10 million minor children have experienced the arrest, incarceration, or release from jail or prison of a parent or loved one. (45)

On top of the shame and guilt of witnessing and experiencing the incarceration of a parent or guardian, these children experience “reduced financial means, they may live in poorer housing, have less adequate clothing and food, receive less health care, and have less access to a quality of education. They may also have experienced parental substance abuse, high-crime environments, multiple caregivers, or prior separations . . . the child is beset by guilt, fear, grief, and rage; the remaining parent or other caretaker is angry, overwhelmed, and little able to cope with the child’s feelings or the emotional and financial challenge of raising the child alone” (45). We see this particular statistic manifest itself in Maria Ruiz’s fiancee when he visits with their baby. He looks beyond exhausted and pushed to his limits. Both Maria Ruiz and Maritza have said that they will be home before their children even realize they are gone — before they start forming memories. We know that Gloria’s children are already at the age where they will feel the aforementioned effects of their mother’s incarceration. Although Mendoza’s sons are presumably in a loving and well-structured environment with her sister (?), little is known about her teenage daughters in New York, who most likely feel the strains of an absent mother.


Prison Conditions

“[Litchfield] looks almost exactly like my school in here. Same cinder block construction, low ceilings, oppressive flourescent lighting. I wonder if that’s intentional, like part of the punishment. If so, kudos to the government because it’s genius.”

– Neri, Cal Chapman’s wife.

Between the sewage blocking up in Spanish Harlem and the obvious neglect of Jimmy and her Alzheimer’s disease, it’s obvious that there are budgetary problems in Litchfield. Joe Caputo believes that “it’s the least” that they should be able to do — to keep the women “safe and clean;” however, Figueroa is making that especially difficult for him and Sam Healy to accomplish. As Wiebke Bretschneider et. al remind, “the main purposes of imprisonment are retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and protection of citizens, but not the deprivation of prisoners’ right to health” (268). As season two unfolds, we will see exactly why providing these women their most basic rights is problematic.

(P.S. Did you know that Orange Is the New Black was filmed at a real jail that was flooded by sewage? Read more here.)



Since the start of the series, this is the first time we have been introduced to the “F” word of prison: Furlough. For more information regarding leaves of absences, please visit the government document entitled Inmate Furloughs. This document outlines the conditions under which an inmate or person being held before trial may request and/or receive furlough. I believe the show gave it to us in a nutshell, however; “the Loch Ness monster — much discussed and rarely seen,” as Sam Healy puts it.


A Racial Microcosm

“Segregation. Awesome. Separate, but way shittier.”

– Poussey

Aside from the politics between the races as far as the plot is concerned, some very real-world issues arise in this episode. The racial tension begins with the busted bathroom in Spanish Harlem, causing the Spanish to flood and demand use of the ghetto’s bathrooms. Aside from the fact that Mendoza’s group is in the position of greater power, being in control of the kitchen and food supply for the entire prison, there is yet another layer of hierarchy that comes into play in this scenario. Correctional Officer Eliqua Maxwell intervenes in the bathroom territory quarrel. Believing that a black female officer would be on their side, Black Cindy calls her “sister,” which backfires very poorly and concludes with a shot to her record.

Aside from the Spanish taking over in Litchfield, the bustle about immigration politics and undocumented workers in the United States has become a hot topic in the past twenty to thirty years. Census projections believe that in the next few decades, Caucasians will no longer make up the majority of the United States population — it will be Hispanic who take the lead. This is evidenced in the series by both comments made by the prisoners and the politics of prison.

As a strike back from the bathroom issue, Black Cindy and (I think) Janae Watson tie all of the kitchen staff’s shoelaces together. To which the kitchen staff retaliate by highly salting the black women’s food, thus making it nearly inedible. Janae makes the deicison to trip the pregnant Daya, which signals a new high in the war for dominance.

Aside from the racial slurs (“Chili-shittin’ bitches” — “Beanbag Bitch” — “Bruja”) and physical intimidation and borderline violence, there is some basis in the battle of the races in the real world. As if it weren’t stereotypical enough to have the Hispanics in the kitchen, we now have the women of Litchfield commenting on their dominance in the prison, both in number and in force: “Those girls need to learn some manners,” Vee observes. She also tries to intimidate her girls to take charge: “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you like being another woman’s doormat? .  . .Unless we do something, this is gonna be come the way it is. [The Spanish running things.]” We know that Vee is trying to take charge of the women and become head of the prison once again, just as it was back in the day, despite her claims: “I don’t even know these girls. They want me to be some kind of den mother or something.” No matter how hard she tries to negotiate with Gloria Mendoza,

On the opposite side of things, Maritza makes a comment that at first sounds stupid, but after some thought is absolutely genius. She says: “[It’s like the black women] are getting special privileges and we’re the black people.” As far as the races and America’s attitudes go, it’s arguable that the general public regards Hispanics the way that it once viewed Black and African-Americans. Hispanics are the next on the totem pole to be disregarded, used, and abused. Vee’s references to “back in the day” serve to support that the only real competition the women had back in the day was the white group and their den mother: Red and her kitchen.

You don’t have to be a scholar to observe the kind of people in charge of this country: white, older, male. However, we are talking about prison, a women’s prison at that. Lynne A. Haney observes that “mass incarceration is becoming more of a global phenomenon,” despite the fact that “the United States has become the international leader in imprisonment” (73). “Communities of color, be they African American in North America, Aboriginal in Australia, or Romany in Europe, have particularly felt the effects” of said incarceration. Furthermore, “since the 1980s, the U.S. female incarceration rate has increased twice as rapidly as the rate for men” (73), thus explaining how Vee and Gloria are able to “control” their women and run Litchfield.



“Behind every strong man is a strong, cunt-faced witch monster.”

– Sam Healy

The greatest source of misogyny in OITNB indubitably comes from Correctional Officer Sam Healy. In despising his superior, female Warden Natalie Figueroa (for some justifiable reasons), and treating the inmates like crap, it is evident that Sam does need a therapist, as Fig suggested in the season one finale. In a conversation with Joe Caputo about the former male Warden, who was “fucking terrifying,” Sam Healy says: “At least when you talked to him, you were talking to a guy. I hate talking about women’s issues to women. It’s creepy.” Joe Caputo is the only one who really understands that Figueroa “doesn’t give a shit about the women” they are meant to protect. Although Sam teases him, asking Joe if he “want[s] a tissue,” Joe is “fucking serious.” It’s nice to have a guy somewhat in charge that cares about the women . . . even if he is creepy and disgusting and masturbates in his office.

It is interesting that Joe Caputo, a white man, is fighting for the rights of incarcerated women, mainly minority women. Women’s prisons “initially . . . promise[d] . . . to address women’s special needs through reformatories run by other women” (Haney 76). We see how well that ended up with Fig in charge. Rather than empowering these women to reform their lives for improved status after incarceration, “self-control and self-esteem” are preached (Haney 76), which coincidentally is alluded to through Nicky Nichols’ observance of the lack of self-esteem that the women have.


Perhaps Sam’s resentment toward Natalie Figueroa comes into play (other than the fact that he’s a chauvinist pig) due to the fact that there is someone in charge of him, a woman at that, who he despises for her power and influence that outranks his own. We see that this resentment of power emerges when Figueroa’s husband’s political campaign commercial airs in the bar. The two’s ad-lib of the commercial gives away a few of their inner discontentments:

Joe Caputo: “I’m [Jason Figueroa] the only one wearing a hardhat because I’m richer than you.”
Sam Healy: “Hammering that nail was hard. I’m pooped.”
Joe Caputo: [mockingly] “Whee!”

It’s safe to say that those of lower socioeconomic statuses and privileges are bitter toward those above them. Although Sam Healy’s comment about Natalie being a “cunt-faced witch monster” prefaced their ad-libbing, their anger is mainly aimed at her husband. Perhaps this is because of the work they are expected to do with tight budgets, and the perceived lack of work politicians complete; maybe their hate is directed at Jason, for he’s Natalie’s male counterpart. Whatever the case, their poking fun was hilarious.


Litchfield: A Comedy

Nicky Nichols: “I’m a sexual Steve Jobs and that bitch [CO Susan Fischer] is worth 10 points.”


  • Red: “What the hell is the matter with you?”
  • Piper: “Nothing. [Pause] My grandmother is sick.”
  • Red: “Oh, I thought I caught you with a porn.”


Works Cited

Bretschneider, Wiebke, Bernice Elger, and Tenzin Wangmo. “Ageing Prisoners’ Health Care: Analysing the Legal Settings in Europe and the United States.” Gerontology 59.3 (2013): 267-75. ProQuest 5000. Web. 12 June 2014.

Gaynes, Elizabeth. Reentry: Helping Former Prisoners Return to Communities. Ed. Jacqueline Lalley. Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2005. Print.

Haney, Lynne A. “Working through Mass Incarceration: Gender and the Politics of Prison Labor from East to West.” Signs 36.1 (2010): 73-97. JSTOR. Web. 6 July 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/652917/>.


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