Warning: Spoilers of Season 4, Orange is the New Black
If you’re reading then you know. You know that this season of OITNB has taken the world of Litchfield to another, sometimes deeply disturbing level. I am not going to weigh in on the discussions regarding the lack of POC in the writing room, nor am I going to opine about the possible appropriations of the BLM movement or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it is not my place to do so. The links above are good starting points to enter into such discussions as led by POC, women, and others qualified to speak with more authority than could (or should) I. What I want to want to write about is the narrative arc of Suzanne, derisively called Crazy Eyes. Without question, she is and has always been my favorite character.
I haven’t written about Suzanne in the past because it seemed that more separated us than united us, at least in terms of me appropriately writing about her without appropriating her experience. She is a woman of color who, as far as the writers have allowed us to see, is interested in women and not in men or gender fluid/ gender-queer persons. Again, that’s only what we’ve been shown. But with that much info, there would not seem to be any connection between such a character and someone like me. This season, though, we also have been shown more painful situations in which her mental illnesses cause her to suffer devastating consequences. We see that she is serving time for (we can surmise) kidnapping, imprisonment, and some form of homocide, perhaps manslaughter. We don’t see her trial, nor do we know her sentence. A logical question arises: Why isn’t she in a hospital or institution? She’s not in a psychiatric hospital because of the policies Ronald Reagan pushed into hyperdrive in the 1980s, resulting in a sharp increase in homelessness, and which directly contributed to the present reality: there are more mentally ill persons incarcerated than there are in proper care facilities.
Of course, not all mental illnesses are the same, so we cannot expect a character to somehow represent an entire community. I am also sympathetic to the challenges of being a writer, and I know that someone is always going to complain. I have no interest in doing that; I don’t need to know if any of the writers have mental illnesses or have experience being in psychosis. I know that mental illness is messy and uncomfortable and scary and heartbreaking and violent, and that those are potent ingredients with which to work; without question, Uzo Abuda is a mistressful actor and delivers a powerful, nuanced, and gut-wrenching performance. Together, they produce a well-drawn character who embodies the contradictions of mental illness: we can be loving, gentle, considerate people, but we can also be raging, unpredictable, even violent.
Where OITNB provides the most potent commentary, at least for me, is connecting the failures of our society to invest money, resources, and human capital into decreasing recidivism through rehabilitation; the ways in which retributive justice have now fed into a for profit prison model that prioritizes dollars over lives; and how the corporatization of prisons prevents well-meaning (if heavily flawed) people like Healy and Caputo from making changes that will actually improve the lives of inmates and enable them to turn their lives around. Story after story comes out each year about the dangers of private, for-profit prisons, there is consistent evidence about the bribing of judges to keep people incarcerated, and it is well-established that nearly 70% of for-profit prisons have “lockup quotas” that require prisons to be at full capacity. Prison is now about profit, so there is little to no motivation to promote rehabilitation programs, to deescalate (and stop) the asinine war on drugs, or to change the sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders because they are a cash cow. Addicted people do what they have to in order to get a fix; mentally ill, especially unmedicated, do what they have to do in order to feel safe, and I know from my own experiences that can feature unsettling behavior that seems threatening to those unfamiliar with the characteristics of mental illness. And, finally, prison guards in private prisons are more likely to engage in activities such as pitting two mentally ill inmates against each other for the purposes of betting.
So in the wake of potent and necessary criticism of OITNB, I wanted to lift up into the light an aspect of the show that is well done, at least for this viewer, that hopefully galvanizes more people to pay attention to the ways in which mass incarceration, for profit prisons, sentencing guidelines, and the lack of proper resources being directed toward mental health care have systemic, detrimental impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our nation.
It is not Suzanne who is crazy; it is the system that keeps her from being well that is sick.