One of the many reasons why Orange Is the New Black works so well is in smuggling in a potent dose of social policy commentary, zipped up in a comedy jumpsuit. Jenji Kohan’s prison series, now in its third season, has been justly lauded for its diverse ensemble of women who implicate every adjective a production assistant ever typed on a casting sheet. So far, though, there’s been one noticeable absence: a juvenile inmate.
So far Kohan has taken a few hesitant swipes at the prison industrial complex; her aim is true, even if not very high. Folding into the mix, for example, a 16-year-old girl serving 15 years to life would give Kohan a buffet of possibilities that would play to her best strength—raucous individual storytelling—while sharpening a critical weakness: strong policy indictments.
It’s a fact that a handful of states allow kids as young as 10 to be tried as adults in criminal court. It’s a fact that we lock up 13-year-olds in adult prisons. Although most youth transferred to adult court are boys, it’s a fact that girls not yet old enough to drive can serve 40 years right alongside a diverse group of women who’ve been convicted of all sorts of crimes. New York, home of OITNB’s fictional Litchfield prison, is one of only two states in the U.S. that prosecutes all youths 16 and older as adults. (The other state is North Carolina.) Approximately 250,000 youth under age 18 are tried in the adult criminal system each year, with nearly 100,000 incarcerated in adult jails and prisons.
These statistics are the aftermath of a narrative dating back to the early ’90s, when a couple of prominent academics packaged the high youth crime rate with a few high-profile juvenile cases to issue an epic sociological warning: The “superpredators” were coming. Nearly every state in the country sent hammer-of-justice legislation through its panicked state houses, making it easier to try to punish kids as adults. But actual juvenile crime never lived up to the doomsday hype. In fact, it’s been declining ever since and reached a new low in 2012.
Meanwhile, psychologists were delving deeper into adolescent brain development, examining issues like impulsivity, long-term reward thinking, and peer pressure. The resulting studies placed kids’ culpability in the context of their age and eventually helped a slim majority of the Supreme Court to ban the juvenile death penalty in 2005 and curtail the use of life without parole for youth in more recent years. Following those cases, a decent number of states inched back some of their worst superpredator laws, and federal legislation such as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act has encouraged the moral universe’s arc to bend in a slightly more just direction as well. Stars are aligning in interestingly bipartisan ways to rethink how we punish people and unravel the narrative that brought us to this point.
Fact-checkers might flag the in-real-life improbability of a young girl being sent to a federal women’s penitentiary before she turned 18—it would likely be a state prison—but OITNB has already demonstrated that you can be less than 100 percent realistic and still be true. A juvenile OITNB character would recast the show’s familiar territory as more poignant. It’s not hard to imagine compelling (and humorous) scenes between a young inmate and the daft, shady guards at Litchfield, who wouldn’t have been trained to work with, talk to, or restrain kids. Scenes between a teenager and tough, motherly characters such as Red (Kate Mulgrew) or Sophia (Laverne Cox) would nearly write themselves. A visitation-day encounter with a victim’s family member could spark some important conversations about what consequences are appropriate when youth commit heinous crimes, especially against people.
Just a few weeks ago, Kalief Browder, unjustly held as a teenager for three years at Rikers Island (mostly in solitary), died by suicide at his home. Browder’s lived experience inside Rikers could have been a case study for the grievous effects of adult prison on youth. Youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to be assaulted both sexually and physically by other inmates and by guards. They have little to no access to developmentally appropriate services or mental health care tailored to their age. Their decompensating response to solitary confinement—an experience that is torturous even for adults—is amplified by the ways youth experience time differently. Youth in adult jails and prisons are eight times more likely to die by suicide than even those youth in juvenile facilities, who are already at severely greater risk of suicide than the general youth population.
These are hard but necessary stories to tell. The classic television dramas to which OITNB owes a creative debt—M.A.S.H. comes to mind as much as Oz—understood the nuances of how comedy and tragedy can increase the power of the other. Let’s let Jenji Kohan use her sensitivity and wit and accessibility to put a human face on these kids.