Everything You Didn't Know About Women's Prisons, Now on TV

Jenji Kohan, creator of ‘Weeds,’ tells how sexuality, male-female differences play out in her new series 'Orange is the New Black.'

Ruta Kupfer
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Ruta Kupfer

In the new television series “Orange is the New Black,” which takes place mainly in a women’s prison in the United States, one of the wardens tells a new prisoner, “This isn’t Oz.” What she means is that, compared to the prison of that name described in the eponymous HBO drama, the facility where she works is far less cruel. The new series by Jenji Kohan, creator of “Weeds,” similarly has more compassion, humor and sisterhood than the macho 1990s series “Oz.”

“Orange is the New Black,” which aired last week on Netflix in the United States and on Hot cable in Israel, follows Piper Chapman ‏(Taylor Schilling‏), an upper-middle-class white woman, who goes to prison for a crime she committed 10 years earlier, when she smuggled money from drug deals in a suitcase for her then-lover ‏(Laura Prepon, “That Seventies Show”‏).

The series, which has already been renewed for a second season, is based on Piper Kerman’s autobiography, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” The short and pithy name, which in one ironic line sums up both its main plot and its tone, was one of the first things Kohan liked.

“A friend of mine sent it to me and said, ‘You’re gonna love this,’ and she was right,” Kohan said in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “One of the main things is the characters are so rich and so interesting and so individual, and I love that it was a way into the prison world that was kind of new and interesting and an easy sell, frankly. It’s sort of white-girl, fish-out-of-water, going into jail, and if you try to sell a really good prison show it’s a much harder sell, but when you can sort of follow this girl, once you’re in you can tell a whole spectrum of stories.”

The series takes place not only in the prison but outside it too, in flashbacks from the prisoners’ past.

“Different shows have different flashbacks from different characters,” Kohan said. “When you’re writing these kinds of shows, this is your life, and I didn’t want to spend my life in prison. I wanted some blue skies. I wanted a sense of freedom. So just to preserve our sanity in the writers’ room when we were writing scripts, we incorporated these flashbacks to get the sense of the people our characters were outside of the prison. But beyond that, the huge advantage was really rounding out these characters, because you play a role when you’re in prison, you have to wear a mask.”

In some sense, the new show could be considered “Weeds” part 2 − another show about an ordinary woman who becomes involved with drugs. Asked whether she found this a plus or a minus when working on it, Kohan replied, “I think it’s a different world. My tone is my tone, and I think it tends to come out in the things I write, but this is a whole other world and these are very different characters. This is something new and there’s always going to be part of me in every project I do, but we have a whole different writers’ room and we have a whole different actors’ room, and we have an hour to tell our stories. And it’s based on this book, so many new elements are brought in.”

Kohan is an experienced and brilliant Hollywood scriptwriter. She has written for many dramas and comedies, including “Sex and the City,” “The Gilmore Girls,” “Mad About You” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In an earlier interview, prior to the second season of “Weeds,” Haaretz asked Kohan about the fact that many of the series for which she has written deal with women, and she replied that when she is writing, she doesn’t get into gender issues. The present interview posed that question again, in light of her latest series.

“Do I go looking for women things? Not necessarily, but I tend to be interested in them,” Kohan replied. “I’m interested in underground economies, and I’m interested in gray areas, and I guess I’m interested in writing about women.”
A world without men

The series presents a world almost devoid of men, but with romantic love between women, though one of the characters tells Piper when she arrives at the prison that it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I think people need to accept their sexuality no matter what environment they’re in, and sex is so much,” Kohan said. “It’s closeness, it’s expression, it’s power, it’s so many things, and I’m a great subscriber to the Kinsey scale, where 10% is absolutely straight and 10% is absolutely gay and everyone sort of floats in the middle, everyone else. And I think when you’re in this environment, and you’re looking for comfort or something, it’s natural to explore your sexuality.

“I think some of the inmates are absolutely gay and others are gay for this day, and they’re all figuring it out. I think she [Piper] was a floater. I think the question for her is, am I the person I was when I committed these crimes, am I the person I became after I ran away from all of it, what’s my true nature? I don’t think she necessarily has to answer it.”

Kohan said she was an admirer of “Oz” and thought it was great. “When we went to visit one of the facilities, I was talking to a warden there, and he had worked in men’s prisons and women’s prisons, and I said, what’s the difference? And he said men are every man for himself, and women’s prisons tend to be communal. There’s family structures that fall into place and, beyond that, women tend to be in jail, particularly in minimum security, for very different reasons. They’re in for drugs, and they’re in for crimes that are often related to the men in their lives. Whether they did something for the men or they did something against the men, it tends to be related a lot to their personal lives. It’s a different population.”

What’s the difference between adapting a book into a series, as you did with “Orange is the New Black,” and writing an original series like “Weeds”?
“It’s hard because I know Piper, I’ve met her, I’ve spent time with her, we email all the time, I like her, and I wanted to respect what she’s written. At the same time, once it becomes a TV show, it’s inhabited by actors and crew and writers. It becomes its own animal, and it really diverts pretty quickly from the book after the first episode.

“What really attracted me to the book was how beautifully she rendered the people she met, how individual these characters were. So often we look at the prison population with just a wide brush stroke, that they’re criminals, and she really went in there and said, no, they’re people, and they each have a story to tell. And that’s what interested me the most, because everyone does have a story to tell − it’s kind of an evergreen.”

As for the Israeli aspect, it’s hard not to notice that there’s another “Yael” in the new series. In “Weeds,” she was an Israeli character played by Israeli actress Meital Dohan. In the new series, she’s an actress named Yael Stone, who plays the role of Lorna Morello.

“Yes,” Kohan replied, “but one is named Yael on the screen and another is named Yael behind the scenes. But I guess Yaels follow me wherever I go.”
In her previous Haaretz interview, Kohan spoke about her desire to include an Israeli character in the series. “My children attend a Jewish school,” she said at the time. “I met a lot of Israeli mothers there, and the character of Yael is a tribute to those mothers. They’re so terrific. All the Israeli mothers I’ve met are terrific, and so is Meital. Yael is a character I constructed from all the mothers in our school. I always check where people are in relation to their Judaism. I married a non-Jew [Christopher Noxon]. I made a choice that won’t enable me to be a rabbi, that’s one of my burdens in life.”

Still shot from the TV series “Orange is the New Black”.Credit: courtesy
Jenji KohanCredit: Kristina Bumphrey/Star Pix
Laura Prepon, star of the Netflix original series, "Orange Is The New Black".Credit: AP



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