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  2. Criminal Justice, Economic Justice

Speaking of Education Reform, What Can Congress Learn from Orange is the New Black?

By José Santos Woss, September 11, 2019


Recently, I joined Illinois Rep Danny Davis to talk about lifting the Pell Grant ban and giving people more access to education. Congress has introduced a bill - the bipartisan REAL Act (H.R.2168 /S.1074) - which would restore access to Pell Grants. But it is not moving as fast as planned and needs some helpful pressure for final passage.

While OITNB is a fictional television show, we have the opportunity to make real countless moments of hope and dignity through purpose.

With that in mind, we did not spend any time talking about pop culture. But I couldn’t help thinking about the last season of Orange Is the New Black (OITNB). It’s full of important themes to understanding mass incarceration and education: The terrible effects of solitary confinement, mental health, and relationships with loved ones all play prominent roles. So often the story of incarceration is courtrooms, sentences, and prison time. This season shows us the lives of the incarcerated through a much more nuanced, human lens.

SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the most powerful story arcs in the final season of OITNB is that of Tamika and Taystee. In a twist, Tamika becomes the warden over more experienced Officer Hopper. She quickly moves to make bold changes. One of her first is to close the segregated housing unit. Solitary confinement is known to have very negative effects on a person’s mental health. She then moves to implement programs to help the incarcerated gain dignity through opportunity. The separation and incarceration is the punishment. It cannot be perpetual punishment through poor prison conditions and/or a lack of programming and opportunity. Tamika institutes restorative justice classes and GED courses. These give the incarcerated women purpose and something to do that will advance their lives and perhaps careers.

Taystee, on the other hand, is now serving a life sentence and initially couldn’t care less about these new programs. She even goes through lengths to acquire a cocktail that would kill her. However, she eventually starts tutoring those around her, causing a positive change in her demeanor. She notices the ladies improving their scores and genuinely learning from her instruction. In a moving scene before she decides against taking her own life, she opens an envelope with copies of GED diplomas. There’s a note that reads “You did this!” Taystee is reduced to tears.

While OITNB is a fictional television show, we have the opportunity to make real countless moments of hope and dignity through purpose. Rep Davis and Congress are currently considering the Higher Education Act, a large and complex reauthorization bill that will likely contain language from the REAL Act. We have the opportunity to lift the ban on Pell Grants in prison, giving over 400,000 incarcerated men and women a second chance at an education. Not only are we giving purpose through education to incarcerated men and women like those in OITNB, but we can save $365 million though reduced incarceration. We should also extend this opportunity to those incarcerated for life - just like Taystee. It would make prisons safer and give dignity through opportunity that they can share with their children and families.

You can help make this a reality by contacting your members of Congress and urge them to move to introduce the Higher Education Act and lift the ban on Pell Grants in prisons.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, election integrity, and policing. He helps to lead the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.