The Cage Is Full of Questions About Legitimacy of ‘OITNB’

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A longtime court reporter emerged from her 72-hour binge of 'OITNB' and realized that some characters being in a federal penitentiary doesn't make sense. (Netflix photo)
A longtime court reporter emerged from her 72-hour binge of the third season of ‘OITNB’ and realized that some characters doing time in a federal penitentiary doesn’t make sense. (Netflix photo)

I watched the entire third season of “Orange Is the New Black” over the course of a single three-day weekend. I silenced my phone and only communicated with the outside world when ordering pizza or (OK, and) Chinese food. I didn’t waste any time showering or getting dressed. I was obsessed, damnit. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

In addition to being a stellar ensemble cast, “OITNB” feeds my inner crime nerd. I’ve written newspaper articles about crime and punishment for more years than I care to admit, so I love anything court-related. But when I emerged from my 72-hour binge and began thinking more about the plot, something struck me. Several of the characters’ back stories — specifically why they may have ended up in the minimum-security crazy town that is Litchfield Penitentiary — don’t add up.

Before you can be charged with a federal crime, certain criteria have to be met. You can’t be charged in federal court for, say, shoplifting because it isn’t a crime that violates a federal law. And while there is some overlap, especially in the case of drug-related crimes, there’s a pretty clear line of what the feds would pursue and what would likely be handled by the state courts.

In case you haven’t already guessed: SPOILERS ARE COMING. Stop reading if you haven’t finished season three of “OITNB.” Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

(Netflix photo)
The original cast of ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ (Netflix photo)

Only a handful of “OITNB” characters’ crimes are spelled out in black and white (and orange!). Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), both based on real people whose story is the source material for the Netflix series, are in Litchfield because they were involved in a drug conspiracy. That’s definitely a federal crime, and the fact that both are non-violent offenders means they would be sentenced to a minimum security prison.

Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) fall into the same category as Chapman and Vause: drug conspiracy. Welcome to Litchfield, ladies.

Also pretty clear: Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler), who we learn was an activist nun. During her flashbacks, we discover she was arrested while protesting at a federal facility. Bingo: She’d be charged federally and likely sentenced to a minimum-security prison.

(Netflix photo)

Same for Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning, left), who shot a worker at an abortion clinic who offended her. A lawyer hired by her supporters cast the crime as an anti-abortion statement, so the crime could have been labeled as terrorism. Whether a murderer would be in a minimum security facility is, however, debatable.

I also cannot quibble with Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who we learn through flashbacks was using stolen credit cards. Because prosecutors can argue that the fraud occurred across state lines, it can be categorized as a federal offense. Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) also landed in federal prison for fraud, specifically welfare fraud. We learn that she was turned in by a disgruntled Santeria customer who saw her trade cash and beer for food stamps.

The rest of the cast who we’ve seen commit crimes, however, are trickier.

(Netflix photo)

First, there’s Lorna Morello (Yael Stone, right). In season two we learn, rather shockingly, that the relationship she has with Christopher, who she talks about incessantly, is all in her head. In fact, the flashbacks throughout the second season, we discover she went on one date with him and then started stalking him when he rejected her. Stalking crimes are almost always a state case, though the flashbacks do allude to her planting a homemade explosive device on his car, which could elevate the crime to the federal level. However, I’d like to think it’s more likely that she’s in federal custody because she was committing fraud. In season two, we also see that she was ordering items online and then reporting that they were never delivered, thereby getting refunds and the merchandise.

But others’ backstories make no sense at all. I think the one I’ve thought about the most is Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy), who is apparently in federal prison for theft and fleeing. Neither are federal offenses. Likewise for Tricia Miller (Madeline Brewer), whose backstory in season one seems to point to an arrest for shoplifting. Perhaps her drug problem landed her in federal court, but it’s also unlikely.

And while it’s clear from season three flashbacks that Norma Romano (Annie Golden) killed her horrible cult leader husband, I don’t think that would have landed her in a federal prison. Murder, while serious, is rarely a federal crime unless there’s extenuating circumstances, like the act being linked to drug crimes. It is refreshing, though, to have an explanation for why Norma’s mute, even if the alluded-to crimes wouldn’t land her in Litchfield.

And then there’s Claudette “Miss Claudette” Pelage (Michelle Hurst). In season one, she is very hurt when she finds out that Chapman described her as a murderer to her then-fiance Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). But then we find out that Miss Claudette did murder a man who was abusing one of the girls who worked for her house-cleaning service. Like Norma’s crime, though, I doubt that that murder would have been prosecuted federally, if she was ever actually caught for it. It’s far more likely she was charged with some sort of immigration violation — maybe harboring illegal immigrants? Unfortunately, Miss Claudette was sent “down the hill” before there was a definitive answer as to what she did.

(Netflix photo)

Though no specific crime has been referenced in her flashbacks thus far, I get the impression that Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew, left) is involved somehow with organized crime, perhaps corruption with the school and government contracts Neptune had. And who knows why Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), Dayanara “Daya” Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and Carrie “Big Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria) are in Litchfield. I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait for season four.

So that’s it. What theories do you have for why our favorite federal inmates are serving time?

Erin Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine




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