“Everyone I know is poor, or in jail, or gone.”
This comment by the fictional character, Taystee, from Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Orange Is the New Black (OITNB), hits the mark.
OITNB is based on the real experience of an upper-middle-class woman who spent thirteen months in a women’s correctional facility.
If you watch closely, you’ll see this popular dramedy dip its toe into social and political criticism. In an episode from the latest season, one scene stood out as being particularly indicative of the current state of work and incarceration in America.
In the scene, Taystee—arguably this season’s star supporting character—hits a home run during an interview with a Philip Morris representative during a mock job fair. She mistakenly believes the prize for giving the best interview will be a real job after she is released–in reality, her success goes no further than the prison walls.
The following dialogue ensues between Taystee and the warden’s assistant, Fig:
Taystee: So who do I talk to to get hooked up to a job?
Fig: This isn’t a contest, you do your best because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Why is that so hard for you people to understand?
Without focusing on the “you people” dig (she’s talking about prisoners right?), there is a clear disparity between Fig’s views on achievement and reality, namely that “working hard” in America does not mean you automatically succeed in the job marketplace, particularly if you have a prison record.
Fig is implying, and a large segment of Americans would agree, that a dedicated work ethic alone will move you up the “ladder of opportunity.” What she ignores is the simple fact that we are not all given the same ladder—some have missing rungs, or lead directly to a prison cell on the next floor.
Starting from Scratch
Taystee demonstrates great intellect, potential, and ambition. In the first season she gets released, however, she is reincarcerated within a few episodes. Although a fictional character, Taystee’s plight is all too reminiscent of the very real cycle of recidivism in our country for the 7 million incarcerated Americans.
Nationwide, 60 percent of ex-prisoners are still unemployed one year after release. Furthermore, about two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested for a new crime within three years.
Not only is this a terrible waste of human capital, it has a horrible racial component. One-in-three black men will go to prison in their lifetime, which means that one-in-six black men will incur a second sentencing.
The result of this racial dimension is that mass incarceration excludes a substantive portion of the black population from the job market. (Author’s note: OITNB doesn’t always do justice to these systemic issues, specifically for black men, as shown in The Atlantic.)
So, no matter what “doing their best” is, once prisoners like Taystee are incarcerated, they stand very little chance of “getting hooked up to a job.” (Actually, the playing field is against them from the moment they’re born.)
‘X’ Marks the Dark Spot on the Prison System
One solution to address the problem of recidivism is for states to ban “the box” that lists an individual’s conviction history in his or her job application form.
This would delay background checks until later in the hiring process, allowing ex-prisoners to demonstrate their qualifications before they are automatically eliminated from the pool.
It is a testament to Netflix and other networks airing shows like OITNB that issues such as recidivism are able to enter a public sphere of awareness. However, it is up to all of us to turn social criticism into policy changes, such as the “ban ‘the box’” initiative.
Or, in the case of Taystee, begin to reward achievement in ways that combat underlying asymmetries in opportunity.
Watch actress Danielle Brooks discuss what it's like to play “Tasha ´Taystee´ Jefferson” on Season 2 of OITNB, including commentary on the job fair scene and reincarceration.