The theme of Orange is the New Black is overwhelmingly obvious – the American justice system serves primarily to debilitate, not to rehabilitate. However, it is the portrayal of it, in showing the way that the prison appears to be helping but really is serving no beneficial purpose, that makes the message being portrayed a bit subtler.
Listed in the prison’s budget are GED classes, fitness classes and healthcare. Yet, once money becomes a question, the administration cuts the GED classes and shuts down the track, limiting the “fitness classes” to a yoga class taught by an inmate. Counselors are on staff in name only, and they are anything but a friendly presence to their “patients”. Medical staff cut off Sophia’s (a transgender woman’s) hormones after they switch to more generic medications, putting her in a dangerous position both physically and mentally, and the doctors can only see inmates in cases of “emergencies”. These are all very clear examples of the prison attempting to look as if it cares for its inmates in case someone asks, but it turns out that they are wildly unprepared for the real world.
Although the prison has a law library that is accessible to inmates, very few understand the legal proceedings and even fewer yet can do something with that understanding. After the inmates learn that Piper is fairly literate, they all bring her their appeals that they have written for her to edit, since they cannot do it themselves, and she eventually exclaims in disgust that none of the women have a chance or “even understand how this system works”.
Throughout the show, multiple characters are released and then later return to prison, having had little way to survive. Tastee, a young, strong woman, tells her friends after being put back into prison that she had nobody, nothing and no way to get anything – at least in prison, she was fed and clothed. Although her friends get angry at her for sacrificing her freedom again, the argument is clear – after being in prison, the system casts its former inmates out in the real world to figure it out. Especially after long sentences, it is very likely that they are cut off from the world, their pre-prison life has moved on without them and they no longer have any idea how to make it. Their only option appears to be a life of crime again, which could either be profitable or put them back in jail, the only life that many habitual offenders have ever known.
By showing the prison’s agenda of pretending to care while showing the audience exactly how little they do, the writers of the show make it abundantly clear that they are indicting the prison system for failing to help the people it holds. Instead, it just collects individuals and profits off of them for as long as it can convince the public it is a good thing.