Orange Is The New Black Sheds Light on the Drug War and Imprisoned Women

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

A young girl  walks into the kitchen to see four women, one of whom is her mother, sitting around a kitchen table in their bras cutting, weighing and packaging cocaine and heroin. Looking on from the sink is a muscular domineering man, later revealed as the person in control of the operation. This scene is a flashback for Daya, one of the characters on Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix series whose third season was released today.

In a later flashback,  Daya and her siblings are shown visiting their mother, Aleida, in prison. Daya is also shown taking over for her mother– a replaceable cog in the drug dealer’s wheel. Daya of course, is having these flashbacks as a prisoner herself.

We often overlook women when discussing the war on drugs. With the rise of mandatory minimums for drug offenders, the number of women in prisons for nonviolent drug crimes is 10 times higher than it was in the mid-1980s. It is estimated that 6 in 10 women in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug crimes, and many of them see jail time for less than 100 grams. Daya’s flashback is not uncommon in the real world.

Women working as low-level assistants to drug dealers are more likely than their bosses to serve longer sentences due to poor legal representation or because another offender will disclose low-level participants instead of a drug boss. As Poussey, Daya’s fellow inmate, says, “There are bitches in here doing 15 years for letting their boyfriends do deals in the kitchen ‘cause they was afraid of getting beat if they said no.” Thanks to our drug laws, a woman with less than 100 grams of cocaine can end up charged with the same amount of prison time as a kingpin.


Photo Credit: The Sentencing Project

Many of the characters on Orange is the New Black are in Litchfield Penitentiary for drug charges. Protagonist Piper Chapman is serving time for criminal conspiracy and international drug smuggling. Alex, her former girlfriend is serving time for heroin trafficking. Taystee, Daya, and Aleida were low-level assistants, serving time for drug handling and dealing. It is alluded that in addition to murder Erica “Yoga” Jones is serving time for cultivating marijuana. Nicky is a drug addict. Vee, a drug supplier. Poussey, a marijuana dealer. Of all the characters whom have had their offenses revealed, 10 were charged with a drug offense. Obviously, according to the statistics, these numbers should be higher. Artistic license encourages the showrunners to be creative with their characters’ offenses, which explains Pennsatucky’s abortion nurse murder and Cindy’s TSA theft, but more of the characters should have drug related felonies. But 10 characters out of 17 is still a lot.

Orange is the New Black goes deeper into the effects of drug felonies than other similar shows in the past. When Taystee is released on parole in Season 1 she has difficulty adjusting to life outside of prison. She sleeps on her cousin’s floor because she doesn’t have a support network, and she can’t find a job because no one will hire a convicted felon. When she does find a job, most of her paycheck goes to paying back the prison for unpaid fees.

Often, women released from prison can’t find housing because drug offenders are prevented from living in public housing. These women usually have no finances because they have been in prison for 3 to 5 years. Public housing is perhaps their only option, and that has been taken away from them. In a space where drug possession and dealing are commonplace, people who have served their time and should be rehabilitated don’t get any assistance. These conditions and the bleak prospect of employment make it incredibly hard for people to maintain the conditions of their parole.

Taystee realizes she would rather live in Litchfield than live outside of it. She breaks her parole, and is sent back to prison.:

“You know what they don’t tell you when you get out? They gonna be up your ass like the KGB. Curfew every night, piss in a cup whenever they say. You gotta do three job interviews in a week for jobs you never gonna get. Probation officer calling every minute checkin’ up. Man, at least in jail you get dinner.”

With more people and politicians acknowledging the failures of the drug war, it is important to remember the women it has affected. Orange is the New Black brings attention to the women that inhabitant our prison-industrial complex, there because of our broken drug policies. Conspiracy offenses account for a big portion of the female drug offenders. There is a problem with the system when low-level drug dealers, basically assembly line workers for kingpins, are treated like hardened criminals.