Power Imbalance in Prison: Orange is the New Black

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What types of power imbalance take place in the prison system? How does Piper Kerman evaluate this inherent power imbalance in prison in Orange Is the New Black?

A power imbalance is when power in unequally distributed in a relationship, held primarily by one person. In prison, power imbalances are inherent because the guards and prison system have complete power over the inmates.

Read about how Piper Kerman experienced power imbalances and other problems with the prison system in Orange Is the New Black.

The Power Imbalance

Piper could sense her freedom getting closer and closer. On one of his visits, Larry mentioned that he had bought a house in Brooklyn for them to live in when she got out. This was wonderful news for Piper—it made her freedom and her life after prison seem more real. She also knew that it marked her out as privileged. Instead of hitting the streets or a homeless shelter, as so many of her fellow prisoners would upon release, she would be living with her fiance in a new house in a chic and gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Visits from Larry and her family were Piper’s lifeline, but she had to pay a price afterwards—the humiliation of the body search performed by the COs after each visit. During these searches, women like Piper were treated as little more than objects to be fondled, groped, and ogled. 

Guards knew that they could brazenly violate the physical space of female prisoners without facing any repercussions—such was the nature of the drastic power imbalance between male guards and female prisoners. Those women who dared to file complaints in response to this treatment were handled harshly. They were sent to the SHU (ostensibly for “protective custody”) and had their jobs and visiting privileges revoked.

Many guards were pure authoritarians. These men fed off the power they wielded over powerless inmates, relishing their authority and capacity to inflict harm on those who wouldn’t fight back. Piper even suspected that there was a certain authoritarian personality type that was drawn to correctional work, with prisons giving such men (and they were nearly always men) unchecked opportunity to indulge their worst impulses. 

She saw this in action when she earned a low-level “shot” (prison bureaucracy jargon for a disciplinary infraction) after being caught by Finn loitering in a part of the prison where she wasn’t technically authorized to be. There was a graduated system of shots, with small infractions garnering minor penalties and major ones resulting in harsh penalties—the worst could land one in SHU or result in extra charges being added to one’s sentence. 

Piper’s transgression was nothing of the sort: she knew it and Finn knew it. No major disciplinary action was ever going to result from her trivial “offense” (cells in SHU were a finite commodity and they couldn’t throw every rule violator in there), nor would the prison even be inclined to pursue the matter (prison officials were generally lazy and wished to avoid cumbersome paperwork). 

Nevertheless, Piper had to stand there and listen to Finn menacingly shout at her, despite the underlying absurdity of the situation. In the end, Piper was punished with 10 hours of extra work service. She made the most of her punishment, filling it by helping Pop prepare the Thanksgiving meal in the kitchen.

Breakdown of Discipline

Problems with the prison system were everywhere, even when people tried to leave.

Inmate send-offs were usually an occasion for celebration, a collective victory for all the women of Danbury. But Piper was distraught to see Yoga Janet go, throwing her arms around the aging hippie and telling her how much her presence had meant to her during her sojourn in prison. Although she was happy that Yoga Janet was finally free, Piper knew there was no replacing her. Even with Yoga Janet gone, Piper continued to do her morning routine, with the help of an old fitness VHS tape that Janet left behind. Yoga would go on without Yoga Janet.

That fall, the Bureau of Prisons decided that it would not be sending Martha Stewart to Danbury after all, citing the facility’s ease of access to New York-based media, which would bring unwanted scrutiny. When it looked like Stewart might be taking up residence in Danbury, new inmates had been redirected to other federal facilities in an effort to avoid giving the appearance of an overcrowded prison if there were to be a sudden media swarm with such a high-profile prisoner. Now that Stewart was not coming, the floodgates opened and new prisoners once again began stretching Danbury’s capacity to the limits. The results were overcrowding, high tensions, and a generally hostile mood throughout the camp. 

On top of this, Butorksy retired and was replaced by another BOP lifer named Finn. While Butorsky was racist and homophobic, he was also a stickler for rules, paperwork, and proper procedure—not necessarily bad qualities to have in a chaotic place like a federal prison. Finn, on the other hand, was lax, disorderly, and a disastrously inept administrator. While this did give inmates some greater level of day-to-day freedom, it also contributed to a general breakdown of order and discipline, creating unsafe conditions in the prison. Even worse, individual COs enjoyed greater personal discretion over how to handle inmates in the absence of clear guidelines from the top of the hierarchy. This gave the most sadistic and abusive among them an opportunity to indulge their worst tendencies. This inconsistency demonstrated even more problems with the prison system.

The story of a prisoner named Cormorant demonstrated to Piper just how dangerous this chaotic state of affairs could be and the starkness of the power imbalance. Cormorant was carrying on a sexual relationship with a male CO named Scott (given the power disparities between COs and inmates, it was impossible to know how truly consensual the relationship was in the first place). Finn harbored a deep dislike for CO Scott, but he chose instead to retaliate against Cormorant. Finn first had Cormorant sent to SHU as a way of antagonizing Scott. When Scott quit, Finn had Cormorant sent to the maximum-security facility, where she would serve the duration of her sentence. Cormorant was the unwitting (and unwilling) pawn in a power struggle between two different players in the prison bureaucracy.

Power Imbalance in Prison: Orange is the New Black

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  • How upper-class Piper Kerman landed in prison on drug charges
  • The key lessons Kerman learned about society and herself

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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