Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘Orange Is the New Black’ Overlooks the Rich, Real-Life History of Resistance in Prison

Victoria Law

When New York state opened its first women's prison in 1835, women rioted to protest the atrocious conditions.

Content note: This piece contains a description of the death of a real woman in prison.

This season’s Orange Is the New Black opens with a riot sparked by the killing of a young Black woman named Poussey Washington. Infuriated by her death at the hands of a guardand by the increasingly oppressive conditionsthe women at the fictional Litchfield prison take over the prison for three days, holding several guards and prison administrators hostage. The women quickly descend into chaos, raiding the kitchen, commissary, and medications closet for anything and everything they can get their hands on. Some even force the hostages onto the auditorium stage, where they strip and cavity-search them; later, they make the hostages, still stripped down to their underwear, participate in a talent show at gunpoint. Only a small group of Poussey’s friends focus on seeking justice for her and improving prison conditions. And even then, women in that small group struggle to keep their focus on Poussey and not on leftover lattes and Cheetos.

While the season’s fictional riot seems like a parody of Lord of the Flies dropped into a women’s prison, real-life women in prisons have rebelled and rioted to protest prison injustices, including the deaths of the women around them. But the average viewer can be forgiven for not guessing this from the show.

In fact, when New York state opened its first women’s prison in 1835, women rioted to protest the atrocious conditions. In her book Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control, historian Nicole Hahn Rafter noted that the women literally tore the clothes off the prison matron (the women’s prison’s then-equivalent of a warden). When other (male) officials attempted to restore order, the women chased them out of the building with wooden food tubs.

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Women have also rioted to draw attention to deaths at the hands of prison guards. In August 1954, 350 women at Raleigh’s North Carolina Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) did just that, erupting into riot after the death of 18-year-old Eleanor Rush. Rush was a young Black woman serving her second prison sentence at the North Carolina prison. That month, she had been sent to solitary confinement, where she spent six days. During those six days, after Rush allegedly tried to damage whatever was in her cell, prison officials removed everything from her cell except for her mattress. On her seventh day in isolation, prison staff did not deliver food to Rush’s cell. She and a woman in another cell began yelling and cursing in what prison officials later described as a “boisterous manner.” The superintendent of the prison ordered her to be quiet; when the women continued to yell, the superintendent returned with other prison staff and restraining belts. They placed a metal cuff on Rush’s wrist, followed by a leather restraining belt around her body; her arms were then buckled to the belt.

According to court documents, being restrained did not quiet Eleanor Rush. Two guards held her while another fashioned a towel into a gag, placed it in her mouth and tied it behind her head. When they left Rush’s cell to do the same to the other woman, Rush managed to remove her gag and began yelling again. The superintendent returned and placed two towels in her mouth, each tied tighter than the initial towel. While tying these towels around her head, the staff person dislocated Rush’s neck. Half an hour later, Rush had died.

The following morning, when the women at NCCW learned about Rush’s death, they demanded answers—and accountability. At first, they surrounded staff members and demanded to know what had happened to Rush, and who would be held responsible. When the answers were unsatisfactory, the women—both Black and white—began to riot. The riot lasted three and a half hours until guards from the neighboring (men’s) prison arrived to quell the disturbance.

But their actions did more than simply cause chaos within the prison. The riot caught the attention of the State Bureau of Investigations, which ordered a probe into Rush’s death. At the probe, several women incarcerated at NCCW testified, stating that they had rioted to draw attention to Rush’s death—to ensure that her death was not ignored, and that these tragic and inhumane circumstances would not be repeated. In other words, realizing that their ability to reach out and demand attention was limited, they chose to riot to make sure that Eleanor Rush was not forgotten.

A commission found that Rush’s death “arose exclusively from, and was proximately caused by, the negligence of the employees” of the prison, according to the Supreme Court of North Carolina in a 1957 ruling on the case. The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld that decision and awarded $3,000 to Rush’s mother. In addition, the prison warden, Ivan D. Hinton, and the three staff members who had bound and gagged Rush were removed from the women’s prison. (Hinton, however, was not fired. He was instead returned to his former position as warden of the Caledonia prison farm.) The riot—and subsequent investigation—also forced the state prisons director to ban the use of gags and iron claws (metal handcuffs that can squeeze tightly).

This was not the only time that incarcerated women rioted to both protest and draw wider attention to prison injustices. At NCCW alone, women rioted to protest conditions two years later in 1956, and again in 1975.

But riots aren’t the only way that people in prison, regardless of gender, have resisted and attempted to challenge injustices behind bars. In 2011 and again in 2013, people imprisoned across California engaged in mass hunger strikes to protest prison practices of placing people in isolation for indefinite amounts of time. As reported earlier in Rewire, incarcerated people across the nation participated in a work strike in September 2016. There was no one set of demands; instead, people in different prisons asked for changes related to their specific circumstances. And in December 2016, pregnant women held at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail sued over their treatment, including the jail’s practice of placing them in solitary confinement.

In May of this year, people in the administrative segregation units (ASUs) of California’s Folsom State Prison, a men’s prison, went on hunger strike to protest the “ongoing mistreatment, dehumanization, and unbearable living conditions” in the ASUs, where they are locked in their cells for 23 hours each day. In March 2017, the average length of stay in California’s ASUs was 104 days.

Hunger strikers issued a list containing nine demands:

  • adequate access to courts and legal assistance;
  • meaningful education, self-help courses and rehabilitative programs;
  • access to meaningful exercise in the yard;
  • an end to the welfare checks conducted every half hour;
  • access to buy televisions;
  • an end to repackaging commissary items in trash bags;
  • adequate and appropriate clothing and shoes;
  • providing a food bowl and cup for people to eat from;
  • giving non-disciplinary status to qualifying prisoners. This means that, if a person is not found guilty of breaking a prison rule, they should be released from segregation.

The hunger strike lasted approximately two weeks, bringing together family members and outside advocates, who held solidarity rallies both outside the prison and in Los Angeles.

Raquel Estrada is one of those family members. Her husband has been in administrative segregation since January; though he has not had a hearing to determine whether he actually broke a prison rule, prison officials have issued him a 14-month sentence in isolation. Shortly after the strike began, she drove the three hours from her home to Folsom to visit only to learn that her husband had been transferred to another prison that morning.

Estrada told Rewire that other family members have not been able to schedule visits with their loved ones, and that participants face the threat of being transferred to other prisons as well as be labeled as Security Threat Group members, a designation that could result in being sent to the Security Housing Unit (SHU), a longer-term form of solitary confinement.

Though the men have now resumed eating, Estrada and other supporters are determined to continue supporting their loved ones’ efforts. They continue to call and email prison officials about these demands as well as to ensure that they do not suffer retaliation for their protest.

There’s a long history of riots, rebellions and resistance in U.S. prisons. Many of these rebellions and acts of resistance have led to longer-term change within the individual prison; in some instances, such as the 1971 Attica uprising in western New York, the ensuing reforms, such as access to educational and vocational programming, were implemented in prisons statewide.

Instead of writing these historical and more recent events into the season, or apparently drawing on them, the writers concocted story lines involving secret basement bunkers, cafeteria séances, and mini-riots in the hallway when the coffee runs out. Orange Is the New Black had the opportunity to bring some of this hidden history and herstory into the wider public consciousness—and it missed out on doing so.

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