Netflix's Orange is the New Black slams the criminalization of mental illness

After months of waiting, Orange is the New Black’s (OITNB) season four was released in late June, and yes, I binged the Hell out of all 13 episodes.

If you aren’t familiar with OITNB, what, pray tell, is wrong with you? the show, which boasts an amazing ensemble cast, initially revolves around Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a fancy-pants upper-East side 30-something who is sentenced to a little over a year in federal prison after being convicted for transporting money for her drug-dealing girlfriend (played by Laura Prepon).

Cue lots of tears from our favorite little WASP as she acclimates to life in the big house. However, to fill four season worth of highly engaging content, creator Jenji Kohan (also creator of a little show titled Weeds) not only explores the relationships between inmates, but provides detailed flashbacks from each character's respective life to better develop storylines and sometimes even humanize the most wicked of criminals.

What makes Season Four different? Kohan shines a big fat (albeit uncomfortable) spotlight on the criminalization of mental illness in the good ole US of A. Given the fact that 1 in 5  adults suffer from mental illness in the U.S.,  plus the extenuating circumstances of prison life, many of OITNB's inmates undoubtedly struggle with psychiatric issues. That said, Kohan focuses on the stories of two characters to address the treatment of the mentally ill within the confines of the judicial system.


Credit: Netflix

Credit: Netflix

We meet Suzanne Warren (played by Uzo Aduba) AKA “Crazy Eyes” in Season One. While Kohan briefly touched upon her story in OINTB’s second season, it wasn’t until Season Four when we finally learn the devastating reason behind her incarceration  Add to it prison instead of treatment and the system created a pressure cooker that ends in incredible tragedy.

Credit: Netflix

Credit: Netflix

Then there is Lolly Whitehill (played by Lori Petty), who’s introduced to the mix in Season Two and transitions into a main character in OITNB’s third season. It’s eventually made apparent that she suffers from some sort of major psychosis as evidenced by her persistent delusions of persecution as well as auditory hallucinations.

In season four we finally see how she arrived at Litchfield Prison; to avoid ruining too much for those living under a rock, viewers witness a quick decline from [somewhat paranoid] journalist to street person taken in by the police and sentenced to prison. Once incarcerated, Lolly eventually declines to a point that she's relegated to the dreaded "psych block "where it seems those suffering from mental illness are punished instead of treated.

So what?

In a March 2015 article, CQ reporter Sarah Glazer wrote, “states have lost some $4 billion in treatment funds in the last few years, forcing them to close or shrink mental health clinics and hospitals. As that's happened, more mentally ill inmates have wound up in jails and prisons, and corrections officials say they aren't able to deal with the trend". “According to the Department of Justice, about 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates report symptoms meet the criteria for a psychotic disorder”, reports the Washington Post

To be clear, social scientists are drawing a correlation between state and federal budget cuts to social service programs (that replaced mental health institutions) and the surge in the criminalization of the mental illness.

It makes your heart hurt for those stuck in Justice's turnstile and yes, it affects your pocketbook as well. On average, it costs taxpayers $30,619.85/inmate annually (2014).  According to a 2013 Economist article, America has "5% of the world's population and 25% of it's prisoners" -- again, 24% of whom are mentally ill. Imagine if we could stabilize a fraction of folks suffering from untreated mental illnesses and assist them in the transition to tax-paying, red-blooded 'Mericans instead of keeping them holed up in the system. Plus, you know, that whole QUALITY OF LIFE THING.

pete earleyMental health advocate, parent and best-selling author, Pete Earley (no relation), dedicated his life to exploring our current mental health system, or lack thereof, after his son was declared mentally ill in the early 1990s. I highly recommend reading Earley’s non-fiction book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness (2006) in which he tells two stories: 1) his son’s and 2) his observations “during a year-long investigation inside the Miami- Dade County jail where [he] was provided unrestricted access."

And thank you to Ms. Kohan for spending the time and taking a risk to highlight the unsettling relationship between our mental health and judicial systems.

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