The setting of Orange Is the New Black in a female prison provides for a set of characters rarely seen before on television. All of the prisoners are female (there is also a female transgender prisoner), with the few male characters (such as some of the prison guards and Piper’s fiance) serving the secondary role of being connections to the outside world. This atypical gender ratio leads to a focus on women’s issues and a portrayal of women not commonly seen in television.
Kate Mulgrew, who plays Red, proclaims that “These women are unapologetic for their flaws, for being in your face, for making mistakes and speaking their mind.” The absence of males in the prison environment may be a factor in making the women bolder, possibly because they feel like all the other prisoners are more like them. In the show, nearly all of the prisoners have some degree of agency, as their separation from society forces them to be self-reliant. However, this agency is also limited by the fact that they are prisoners and do not have the freedoms that normal people do. Although the characters who are not prisoners have more agency than the prisoners, their actions do not affect the show as much due to their more distant relationship with the protagonist.
A key time that Piper demonstrated agency early in season 1 was when she declined help from her ex-lover and fellow prisoner Alex. When Alex offered Piper food while the kitchen staff was refusing to serve her, Piper chose to throw away the food, in order to defy Alex and prove that she would not give in to Red’s will so easily. This action gained Piper the respect of Red and the kitchen staff, who soon resumed serving her food.
The show uses Piper as a gateway to the issues of race, sexual orientation and mental illness. Due to her white, somewhat privileged background, she doesn’t have to face some of the additional discrimination that some of her fellow inmates must suffer. For example, Hispanic and African-American women are generally shunned by the white prisoners, as well as some of the prison staff. Sue, an inmate who appears to have some kind of mental illness, is avoided by almost all of the prisoners. The inmate counselor, Sam Healy, goes as far as to falsely put Piper in a position of influence in the prison after she committed a similar violation to an African-American inmate who was harshly punished. Healy tries to exploit divisions between the women to maintain the patriarchy in the prison, and despises the lesbian women in the prison, looking for any excuse to punish them.
I have linked an article below that I found very interesting and provided valuable insights into discrimination in OITNB.