OITNB ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, Ruby Rose (left), Dale Soules (2nd from right), Taylor Schilling (right), 'Ching Chong Chong', (Season 3, ep. 306, aired June 12, 2015). photo: JoJo Whilden / ©Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection

Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s most original original series, does not disappoint in its third season. That said, I binge-watched it in order to write this post, but I don’t recommend you do the same. There’s a lot of heavy stuff here, as there should be in a prison dramedy, and sensitive souls like myself may feel that weight more than others. So take it slow, an episode a week, or maybe one every few days, if you must. You may as well make it last—season four won’t be available until 2016.

One of the many things to love about OITNB is the way it takes on social justice issues within the prison context. All three seasons use flashbacks to fill us in on the prisoners’ lives before they got to Litchfield Penitentiary. By traveling back in time with Taystee, Red, Sophia, et al., we get a sense of the complicated circumstances that led these women to make some terrible choices. In other words, OITNB contexualizes a prison population for a broad audience, albeit with the occasional cliché thrown in. While season three also spends time looking at prisoners’ pasts (Pennsatucky, for example, becomes increasingly more sympathetic), the overarching message this time is more focused on the prison industrial complex itself. Via flashbacks of officer Healy (eww) and warden Caputo (eh), as well as conversations among the guards about unionizing (including a ridiculous but somehow still moving rendition of Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?”), we learn more about the personalities affecting the system our heroines must inhabit.

OITNB_connects_sideAnd the system sucks. In order to keep the prison from closing, the powers that be sell it to MCC—a for-profit corporation. Danny, the “director of human activity,” explains to Caputo that the federal government will still own Litchfield, but now the corporation “manages it and takes any leftover profits.” Cost-cutting measures, therefore, are MCC’s main objective. It shortens the senior guards’ hours, hires new guards but doesn’t bother to train them, replaces real food with bags of goop and even uses prisoners as sweatshop workers to make sexy underwear, paying them a “competitive” wage of a dollar an hour. This last trick sparks one of the season’s ongoing plot points, when Piper makes panties out of leftover fabric, getting prisoners to wear them and then selling them to perverts on the internet.

So is OITNB accurate regarding the corporate prison setup? Can corporations really use inmates as sweatshop workers? Apparently it is, and they can. According to a report from the Centre for Research on Globalization, “Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in [the United States], with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000.” This rising number of prisoners—both at Litchfield and in real life—is more than a little likely related to the privatization of prisons and the use of inmates as low-wage workers. “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income,” the report notes, citing a study from the Progressive Labor Party. “Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself.” And according to Mother Jones magazine, “All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.” Just listen to John Oliver tell it.

This is disturbing information, to say the least, and my admiration goes out to OITNB for bringing it to my attention. Still, neither I nor the show’s writers want to leave you completely bummed out. That’s for next season! Season three ends with a mild reprieve from the horrors of prison life, with the promise of intrigue and humor to come: Judy King, a character clearly modeled on a mash-up of Paula Deen and Martha Stewart, has decided to forgo Alderson Federal Prison Camp (a.k.a. Camp Cupcake, where the real Stewart served her time) for Litchfield. Good choice, Judy! Watch your back, Red.

Photo courtesy of JoJo Whilden/©Netflix/Everett