Two of my more fully realized blog entries (a review of "The Great Gatsby" was the other) were mysteriously reverted to an earlier incomplete draft form by the Blogger software. This matter is under investigation by the Google team, but in the interim, I will attempt to piece together a blog entry out of this although I doubt it will be as good as the original.
Orange is the New Black's portrayal of prison as a hellish place that brings out the worst in people is more a reiteration of pop culture's depiction of the prison system than something shockingly new.
Still, even if you've seen films like Sleepers or Shawshank Redemption, the show can sometimes still upsetting to watch at some points and arouses a societal anger in me watching these girls have their hope strangled.
Prison guard Mendez stops short of physically violating the inmates but he doesn't have a good bone in his body and soon becomes the most hatable character on the show. The fact that none of his superiors care about him is troublesome if this story supposedly has bearing in real life.
Even the relatively benevolent warden Healey is part of a system in which the inmates truly have no one they can trust. Whether he actually cares about the well-being of the inmates is difficult to tell. He's frequently overwhelmed and tries to lessen the drama but an inmate like Piper still has to play the game of survival with him. She can't truly tell her his problems even when they're life threatening. He's unwilling to improve the lives of the prisoners and he only builds a council to give the illusion of power.
The show treats prison as an ultimate survival challenge in which there's a certain upside-down culture you need to assimilate to very quickly and, more than anything else, you need highly advanced people skills.
One of the show's greatest strengths is the ease with which an expanding roster of supporting characters are introduced and deepened. Piper's fellow inmates are an eccentric bunch that run the full gamut of personality. Whether they're flawed individuals (Watson or Red), victims of circumstance (Yoga Jones and Sister Ingallis are the most extreme cases of this but Piper would also arguably fall in here), honorable outlaws (Miss Claudette or Daya) or knowingly bad people, there is no prisoner I don't have some sort of empathy for.
That's not to say that many of the prisoners don't do horrible things to each other and make things worse but it's largely the people on the outside who make things worse through lack of understanding.