As a member of Slate Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive podcasts—including our newly launched series about Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black. Over the next couple of weeks, Slate television critic Willa Paskin will be talking with experts to explore the show’s second season through the lens of economics, race, LGBT issues, and more!
In Conversation 1, Willa chats with NPR’s Adam Davidson about how prison economies really work, whether Vee is the ultimate capitalist, and if the Litchfield Penitentiary would ever carry name-brand candy bars. Davidson is the co-host of Planet Money and a regular columnist for the New York Times Magazine.
Willa Paskin: Hi, and welcome to a Slate Plus special podcast dissecting Orange Is the New Black. I’m Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into specific aspects of the show with the help of learned experts. And today I am going to be discussing Orange and the economics of prison with NPR’s Adam Davidson, the host of Planet Money and a regular columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Hey Adam.
Adam Davidson: Hey Willa.
Paskin: Thanks very much for being here.
Davidson: Thank you very much.
Paskin: So Adam is a fan of the show. Last season he wrote a great piece about why you can’t just buy what you want at the commissary if you are a prisoner, which we will get into hopefully in a little bit. But I did just sort of want to talk first about the—who I think is this season—was like the ultimate capitalist.
[Vee] kind of rolls into Litchfield prison where everything is kind of calm and nobody is selling anything particularly, and she just sees opportunity, and she gets a heroin trade going, she gets tobacco trade going, she creates a market. And what did you think of her?
Davidson: You know, it’s funny because I very quickly found myself sort of bored every time she sort of came onscreen. And it felt like she was such a type. She was such a sort of thought exercise as opposed to an actual character. And I found that frustrating. And it did feel to me like, more than any other character, the writers were directly talking to me and sort of making an argument.
But as it went on, it was hard for me to figure out what exactly the argument was, was it sort of a grudgingly respectful argument about capitalism, was it an angrily dismissive argument about capitalism, because she was such a kind of bizarro-world capitalist, like when she has a speech about, towards the end when she talks about shareholders and is Amazon doing something wrong when they sell books cheaper than bookstores can, they’re worried about their shareholders, where I’m worried about my shareholders.
If her shareholders are her girls, she’s like thrown three of them under the bus and we expect she’ll throw two of the other ones under the bus as well. In that moment, I’m thinking, wait a minute, are they actually making an argument that she’s just a perfect example of Jeff Bezos and how evil capitalism is, or are they actually kind of tweaking her and making her into this such a bizarro-world capitalist that we’re not supposed to worry too much about capitalism?
Paskin: I actually thought that we were supposed to worry about capitalism. I think that the heart of this show is so sort of like liberal humanist skeptical about probably Amazon and Vee felt that way, to me, often.
Obviously Litchfield is not paradise, but sort of this world where things had stabilized and she immediately made it chaotic, just with her endless want. You know, her want for what? When her and Red have that fight at the end, and Red is like “Why are we fighting? Like I’m going to kill you for what? For this ridiculous slice of this prison trade?” and of course Vee wants that.
Davidson: Right, and the world before was kind of this like gift economy where, yes Red amassed a lot of power, but it was through her ability to give gifts and share rather than simply amass wealth and kind of cut away from the rest. So yeah, I assumed that if we went to the writers of Orange Is the New Black, they wouldn’t be all with Milton Friedman, official about how awesome capitalism is and how Vee doesn’t understand the basics of the market.
Paskin: Talking about the barter stuff versus Vee wants to get paid in stamps, is that a more sophisticated financial arrangement really, or is there some sort of virtue in keeping it in barter when you’re just in prison rather than trying to make it where you’re actually making cash?
Davidson: So this was what was fascinating. And it did make me wonder: Are there writers on the staff who’ve actually read about the history of money and the history of how a system of capital was built? ’Cause there was—the show seems to make reference to that literature, interestingly enough. It makes me think, there is this wonderful paper by this economist R.A. Radford, who was a Cambridge-trained economist, but he had to leave Cambridge for a little bit to go fight in World War II and he was caught as a prisoner of war by the Germans and he was sort of moved to a bunch of different prison camps. And very soon after being released, like six months later, he comes out with this amazing academic paper analyzing the market economy of prisoner of war camps in Europe during World War II.
And where cigarettes become a currency, where there is sort of this early chaotic period where everyone is getting these packages from the Red Cross that have like coffee and cigarettes and chocolates and other things, and very quickly people realize some people like chocolate more than coffee, some people like this more than that and we need a standard to trade, so they need a currency. So they started using cigarettes as the currency. And a fairly set price comes up, like a tin of tuna fish is four cigarettes or whatever it might be. This has become this important discussion, this paper of Radford’s, since World War II, in the discussion of, “Wait, why do we have money?” and “How did money come about?” and what is the role of government in money and people in money? And it’s been very interestingly used by the left and the right to try to make claims about the nature of our economic lives through this prisoner of war camp, because Vee is doing exactly that.
She’s coming into a world that has no currency, where people are trading based on their personal values as opposed to some objective measure, a cigarette is worth 10 stamps or whatever the system is. And she’s imposing this market economy, and she’s also imposing this ruthlessness, this heartlessness where sentiment and feeling are irrelevant. It made me think: Do these writers, do they know about Radford?
Paskin: So the conservative argument is that this is innate, that Vee wouldn’t have been the first person in this prison to do this, because everyone would have already been doing it. And that Poussey, who won’t even sell her hooch, is a sucker, almost, like, is not a real person, that’s an imaginary operator.
Davidson: Right, the libertarian, and I don’t generally say libertarians are conservatives, they’re sort of their own thing, but the libertarian/Austrian school of economics argument would be “What happened in the prisoner of war camp was the self-organizing society, that you don’t need a government to step in and create money or create order or create market regulations. That people left to their own devices, they don’t actually want violence, they don’t actually want uncertainty, they will form their own order.” And that’s exactly what Radford describes. There’s an early period where there’s a lot of disorder, and you go to this tent and it’s 20 cigarettes to get a bit of coffee, you go to that tent it’s five cigarettes. But very quickly, prices are stabilized, without any enforcer, because the Germans basically left them alone. The market just becomes comfortable.
And so in that logic, Vee is too greedy, she’s too aggressive. And we learn that that actually might have cost her. But yes, that argument might say, “This would have existed already.” There’s a stupid economist joke that two economists are walking down the street and one says, “Oh, look, there’s a hundred dollar bill on the ground,” and the other one says, “That’s impossible, if there’s a hundred dollar bill on the ground, someone would have picked it up.”
I have no doubt, Orange Is the New Black writers are progressives, I assume they are, I know Piper Kerman is. I feel like I could make a pretty coherent libertarian argument from Orange Is the New Black that the clumsy, heavy-handed role of the state in the form of the prison guards are interfering with the natural order that the locals have.
Paskin: By which they would have arranged to get cigarettes and hair dye and all the extra things they need without anyone’s help. They are already doing it.
Davidson: They are already doing it without anyone’s help, and when you see, like, Red is—her power is removed in the previous season, so suddenly that opens an opportunity for Vee, et cetera.
Paskin: In that story line, there are all these people that are feeding Vee and Red both goods illegally. And they’re sort of murky and we don’t really know anything about them, and maybe we’ll know more about them or maybe it will remain a mystery. But there are also legal goods coming into the prison, and Red in particular seems to me, she set up an operation that is sort of in direct competition with the commissary. So how is that the commissary is not kind of feeding the needs of the prisoners in the way that Red obviously can and is? And I know you’ve thought about commissaries in prisons.
Davidson: Yeah, so I watched this show last year, the first season, and then I read the book. I was fascinated by it, but being this economics nerd, I was fascinated by the economics of it. And also needed a column topic to write one week, and I was Googling around and found there was the prison industry’s annual conference going on that weekend. So I flew down, went to the big prison industry’s annual conference where all the different commissary providers and food vendors as well as all sorts of other things, the people that sell the riot gear and sell the dental equipment and all sorts of stuff, the scanning equipment—it was fascinating.
It’s this very specialized world, and it’s a very unusual market for the United States. It reminded me much more of developing country economies where there is—I don’t know if I want to throw the word corruption around—but it’s a system where the person who wins the bid is often winning the bid not because they have the best product at the best price, but because they have a connection with the people who chose. But even where it’s not corrupt at all, it’s someone choosing what will be offered to the prisoners but who doesn’t have the same interests as the prisoners. So just to give one example, prisoners just really prefer the same brands they get outside, they like Doritos.
Paskin: Like every American.
Davidson: Like every American. Exactly. And when I was in Iraq, I saw that MREs they don’t contain generic hot sauce, they contain a tiny little thing of Tabasco. And M&M’s. People like their brands. And a lot of prisons, they have these crappy brands that only exist in prison. You can look them up. Keefe is the big company that makes those.
Paskin: Like off-brand prison.
Davidson: Weird, off-brand prison food. And I was like why would that be the case? And some of the commissary guys are like no, no, we don’t do that, we don’t do that. But obviously the commissary makes a lot more money, the commissary company, because they can make their own kind of crappy, or maybe it’s fine, I don’t know. I did do a taste test, by the way. I got a bunch of—
Paskin: And? How did Keefe Snickers compare to Snickers?
Davidson: I found them all like a little worse, but it could just be I’m culturally trained to like the name brand. But there’s this interest in the people running the prison, basically to have a crappy commissary in a sense. To have a commissary that charges high prices for inferior goods, so there’s bigger profit margins, so the prison itself can get more money.
Paskin: It is interesting, I presume, that at a certain volume of sales from the commissary just ends up fueling a black market among prisoners in Snickers, or whatever they have.
Davidson: Right, exactly. So there’s all these tensions that you have if you’re the person deciding, you’re the warden or whatever, deciding what is going to be on offer. So there’s one tension between quality of goods and price you get. There’s another tension between quantity of goods, because if you’re too stingy, you’ll really create a demand for an illegal economy, which has its own problems. But if you’re too generous, you have problems there, too, a big one is vermin. I mean that was a big standard, a big thing.
Paskin: This is like exactly the problem that Washington is having about marijuana basically.
Davidson: Yeah, yeah exactly. I mean, you could imagine a case where you’re able to buy a maintenance dose of heroine or just enough cigarettes at the market to squelch the illegal market, which is—some of your pink countries like that model, or Washington state likes that model.
Paskin: As we were saying about name brands, I realized almost the name brand that people in Orange are the most into is yogurt. The name-brand yogurt is the only food product that you regularly see. They trade yogurts, like when someone brings Red that yogurt, and she’s like I invented that move: the yogurt bribe. That’s all they really want.
Davidson: So something that a few commissary people told me, which I almost find impossible to believe, is that mackerels, macs become like currency.
Paskin: Mackerels? What are mackerels?
Davidson: Mackerel, like …
Paskin: The fish?
Davidson: Like a little fish, in the fatty acid aluminum bag.
Paskin: Good-for-you fish.
Davidson: What the Aramark guy explained to me is if you’re in prison, you’re eating a lot of carbs, and your body is desperately craving fat.
Paskin: This is amazing. I have to say any time anyone really talks about Orange Is the New Black, they come to some point where you’re like this is the best plot point. All I want is a thousand jokes about everyone eating mackerels.
Davidson: Yeah, it must stink and people have it under their bed. You can only imagine. It was fascinating talking to these commissary people, because they talk about the end user and the customer. The customer is the prison itself and the end user is the prisoner.
Paskin: And those people have different interests.
Davidson: They have totally different interests. So the prisoner wants what we all want: They want a lot of choice at a reasonable price.
Davidson: And the prison might want that, or they might want limited choice at high price.
Paskin: This is exactly like the horrible, broken dysfunctional showers with the poop coming up from the bottom, that the prisoners want to be able to take a shower, the prison itself didn’t really care that much as long as they could shower and it was inconvenient, and they could save themselves $80,000.
Paskin: I noticed, and I don’t know if you had any thoughts about this, but the crimes this season, when we got into the backstories, were financially based crimes. I think that Orange Is the New Black is a little skewed toward white-collar crime, there is an over-representation of middle-class and middle-class-oriented crimes because I think truthfully most of the people who are in prison have been caught up in drug problems, are impoverished, and run-ins with the cops where they have no power. But we see a lot this season, there’s Morello, who actually doesn’t go to jail for this, but is running a really huge mail fraud, we see that Gloria is running in her bodega, is scamming people. Do those kinds of crimes strike you as being often prosecuted?
Davidson: I don’t know the statistics, but it is very rare to hear about. I happen to know from some earlier reporting that this fraud of basically paying cash for food stamps is very rampant in many, many bodegas in New York City, and I’ve never heard of someone going to jail, I’m sure there are people who are in jail—
Paskin: I guess they didn’t have someone snitching on them.
Davidson: Right. It’s hard not to get another lesson from that, which is like why aren’t there Wall Street titans there? No one actually says that, which actually I feel like this season is so much less subtle than last season, even though last season had its super not-subtle moments. But that you’d almost expect somebody to say, “Hey, I happen to notice that everyone’s here for financial crimes, yet nobody from the—“
Paskin: Right, no one’s here for the serious financial crimes, just the petty financial crimes. They did mention at some point how much the guards make, which I think was something like $18 an hour. Is there any literature about the wage that a person has to be paid for them to take their job seriously?
Davidson: Actually there is; that’s a big, big theme of economics. A general rule is the more you’re paid, the higher the cost of disobedience is—cause you’ll lose a good job. So Walmart paying a low wage, you can absolutely guarantee that they know that that means their employees don’t really care that much about the job because losing it isn’t that big a deal, and they’re going to steal more from the company. So Costco, which famously pays its workers a lot more than Walmart pays its workers, my prediction would be Costco has a lot less theft from employees themselves, but that Walmart has done the calculations and said, “Ah, OK we lose $20 million a year from employees stealing from us, but that saves us $80 million or $100 million or a billion dollars,” or whatever it does.
So $18 an hour, I should say, is an aspirational wage in many parts of the country and there are many rural parts of the country where the prison really is the aspirational job. I’ve certainly spent time in parts of the country, they tend to be pretty far from Litchfield, Connecticut, I have to say, parts of the Deep South or parts of Upstate New York even, where $13 an hour would be a pretty exciting, good, good wage. And then $18 an hour, if you think standard, full-time is like $36,000 a year, that’s well above the median income for rural America.
So you had two people in a family making that $72,000 a year, that’s well-above the median household income in America. So it might sound like not that much but it actually is probably a decent wage, maybe even overstating what a lot of prison people make. And that was one of the least credible things to me, that someone running for state Senate in Connecticut would run on a platform of, “I was tough on the prison guard who raped a prisoner.”
Paskin: When’s the last time you really heard one of those cases, they must happen all the time. I mean, they do happen all the time. And we don’t hear about them all the time.
Davidson: I mean, just imagine, like every New Yorker, if you just said imagine what’s going on at Rikers Island right this minute, it would be bad. And ultimately, that is the key thing about prison economics. That is the crucial thing about prison economics is it is all political. It is not a normal market economy. The commissaries, all the vendors that supply the prisons, all the structure within the prison, it’s sort of this politically protected space.
And generally, what we know, historically, is when you have that kind of protected space, where politicians don’t really want to know too much, the public isn’t demanding too much, but we’re giving enormous power to people who don’t have much alternative access, I mean there’s not people who are like bouncing from running prisons to like highly paid executive jobs in—
Paskin: They don’t go run a college afterward.
Davidson: That is a really good area to look for corruption. And I’ve actually been on a little bit of a soapbox with some journalist friends, saying, “Uh, there’s probably some really good corruption stories.”
Paskin: Yeah, you could send someone to go talk to Piper.
Davidson: Yeah, exactly, I did. And it’s hard even for progressive New York reporters to get too excited about it. When I reported after the earthquake in Haiti, I started doing a series of stories on poverty in Haiti, and people were just like—I mean I had editors and others who were just like—Haiti’s poor, yeah, that sounds fascinating, I already knew that. And prisons are corrupt and badly treated.
Paskin: It is interesting to then think about the extent to which this show gives us the illusion of prisoner control. I mean, I’ve joked about this now a couple of times but all of their schemes work. Like this whole season, all of their economic plans, all of their political plans, all of their machinations, they’re all totally effective. And actually the whole point about prison is that you are powerless and your schemes will come to naught.
Davidson: What I got out of the book Orange Is the New Black is there are no schemes; it’s basically like, “I went to prison, it was pretty awful, I met a bunch of pretty wonderful people who I felt very close to.” And it’s this woman who at every other phase in her life has this huge appetite that’s enormous: to see the world, to experience the world, to change the world—as she’s trying to do now—but she has this period of her life where she just narrows her, and that seems to work, and at least in the world of the book, that’s what everyone seems to be doing.
Paskin: Right, and in the show, everyone is.
Davidson: Right, they’re trying to be the most they could possibly be, they want everything! And it is hard, I’m sure that happens, I’m sure that exists, but it seems a little much.
Paskin: Makes for good television, at least.
Paskin: All right, well thank you so, so much. I really appreciate you coming to chat with me about all of these things.
Davidson: Thank you very much. This was really fun.
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