It’s Unnatural, Innit? Men in Cages

Most people don’t think about prisons very often. Unless you are forced to interact with the prison system in some way, it mostly just hums along in the background. It’s unquestioned. It’s unquestionable. There are some people who are actively into it – who comment “bring back hanging!” on every news article about literally any crime and think high rates of reoffending are due to prisons being too nice – and there are certainly lots of people who object to the criminalising of specific actions, from drug possession to sex work to digital piracy, but for most people, most of the time, prisons just… exist. Always have, always will.

Television as a medium has a long love affair with the criminal justice system, but for the most part, only up until you get to the prison gates. There are an unfathomable number of shows about cops investigating crimes and lawyers prosecuting crimes, that take place in police stations and courts and even jails where the defendant awaits trial, but a relatively tiny few set among convicts in prison. There’s Orange Is the New Black, obviously. Oz. Prison Break. That time Deirdre went to prison on Coronation Street. I could probably name ten if I really tried (whereas I’m pretty sure I could name fifty cop shows in half the time while standing on my head). Partially this is due to the nature of the medium: police procedurals and courtroom dramas are both ideally suited to the hour-long TV episode, telling a self-contained story with characters we know and care about, with twists and suspense ideally timed to the ad breaks. It’s both exciting and familiar, and they always get the bad guys in the end. Truly great police or legal procedurals are, in many ways, what TV does best.

But there’s still something odd about a medium so obsessed with retelling the story of how someone gets sent to prison having almost no interest in what happens when they get there. I don’t particularly buy into on-screen representation as any kind of be-all end-all, but when most people don’t think about prisons very often, and television doesn’t portray prisons very often, it’s hard not to see it as an endless feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The incarceration system relies on this: on us turning away, choosing not to see, not to think, not to question. Cop shows function in large part as propaganda for the police, but the prison system is harder to propagandise for. Cop shows depict a kind of idealised police force, facing down unimaginable danger to catch the bad guys, but there is no similar idealised vision of prison, that makes the audience root for heroic prison officers and glad the bad guys are locked up there. Invisibility is about the best they can do. Television teaches us to root for hero cops, but when it comes to prisons, it asks us to turn away, avert our eyes, keep our heads down. Just don’t think about it at all.

This is part of what makes Porridge such a special show. Originally airing on the BBC from 1974 to 1977, it’s a sitcom set in the fictional Slade Prison in Cumberland. The sitcom may seem like an unnatural format to set in a prison, but that format allows Porridge to depict prison life at a kind of mundane, everyday level. A lot of prison dramas portray the most fucked up, horrible stuff that happens in prison, like rape and violence, but Porridge depicts the thousand tiny dehumanisations that make up prison life even when things are running perfectly smoothly. The oppressiveness inherent to the system, and the tiny victories that make it bearable.

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Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

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