Throughout the first and second seasons of "Orange is the New Black," a small handful of characters -- some minor, some Alex Vause -- were released from Litchfield Penitentiary and reentered the real world. Tragically, both Vause (Laura Prepon) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) were back behind bars within weeks... and in Taystee's case, this was due to her own decision to live where she had food, water and a safe bed rather than suffer in her unstable home environment.
This may have been borderline impossible for some viewers (and Taystee's friend Poussey) to understand, but according to Ann Jacobs, the Director of John Jay College's Prisoner Reentry Institute, it's fairly realistic. Because even though purposeful reincarceration is "overstated" and "a little bit in the realm of folklore," a character like Taystee would have an entire life to build once she got out of jail -- and many personal and institutionalized obstacles working against her.
"You have to build a life in every domain," Jacobs explained. "Where you’re going to live, how you’re going to dress yourself and feed yourself and get across town... and are you going to reconnect with your family?"
Below, find out the exact obstacles that Taystee would have to surmount once she left Litchfield, straight from Jacobs and Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) Senior Career Manager Geoffrey Golia.
Both Jacobs and Golia stressed that, for many recently released people, getting a job isn't even the primary concern -- because a bed to sleep on, for the poor and formerly incarcerated, can be hard to come by without proper help.
"There’s the initial survival phase -- literally, where am I going to sleep tonight, how am I going to eat today, where am I going to get my prescription refilled?" Jacobs explained, adding that thousands of ex-inmates in New York end up in "three-quarter" houses, because without a steady income (more on that in a second), and with laws preventing some inmates from seeing their family again -- ever -- that's their only option with their "$215 a month" allowance.
"Many of the young men that we work with are homeless, and so they’re really searching for a place that they can stay, where they’re safe, where whatever personal belongings they have are safe," Golia added. "Often times that’s the NYC shelter system, but it’s also sometimes transient housing -- couch surfing for a while, staying with relatives, people they might call relatives. Same with mothers of their children... If you look at some of the resumes that our guys sent out, they have our address, the GOSO address on it, because they don’t have a place to stay or receive mail, or use as an address."
Once someone like Taystee were to find a relatively safe place to live, they'd better hope they have some Piper-like employment connections -- because according to Jacobs and Golia (and as you've probably noticed on your own employment applications), a lot of businesses don't want to hire anyone with any sort of record. And since many former inmates don't have Piper's college degree, and don't have much (or anything) on their resume, it's crucial for them to find organizations like GOSO, to help them find companies that accept work opportunity tax credits for hiring.
"One thing a lot of people don’t know is that, in New York state, a crime is a misdemeanor or a felony that is not given youthful offender adjudication," Golia, who says he works for "the hardest working young men in NYC," explained. "In other words, if you’re 21 and you have a misdemeanor conviction, and you come across a job application that says 'have you been convicted of a crime, please explain,' you have to check that box and say yes, because a misdemeanor is a crime.
Basically, Taystee may have been a teen when she was working for Vee, but that won't work in her favor when she's applying for jobs in the city... unless, like Piper, she knows influential people who can help her out.
"Best case scenario is to be like Piper, and that’s a very small number of men and women who go in," Jacobs said. "They had an education, they had a job. They could come back to family, so they had a place to stay. They had people who were in touch with them while they were locked up and who want to help with that process. That’s a very best case, and often in those kinds of situations where someone has that kind of social capital, they’ve got someone who... extends to them the opportunity of a job in a place that would otherwise be hard for almost anyone to get into, like a communications firm like Piper did.
"Worst case scenario is that you have somebody who -- and this is a significant number of people -- go in having dropped out of school. They might not have finished their GED or their high school work while they’re in, and they’re coming out with this criminal record that, depending on the state that you’re going back to, could keep you from getting a barber’s or a cosmetician's... you can get the degree, but you can’t get the license. There’s this thing called collateral consequences. Collateral consequences mean that as a result of a criminal conviction, there are all these civil laws on the books that say you can’t get licensed to do this, you can’t get a driver’s license to do that, you can’t work in these industries, you can’t live in these places."
So sorry, Sophia Burset -- you might be able to make someone's hair look on fleek, but depending on what state you live in and who you know, it might not make a difference.
"It's definitely tied to access to opportunity and support," Jacobs concluded. "It’s definitely tied to social capital. So I think it’s indirectly tied to race, and it’s directly tied to class."
Now let's say Taystee -- or Sophia, or any of these women besides Piper -- succeeds in finding a safe place to live and a steady paycheck. Another big obstacle they cannot ignore would be dealing with mental heath, and any substance abuse that, again, should lead them to organizations like Jacobs' and Golia's to prevent recidivism, AKA a relapse in the criminal behavior that led to their imprisonment in the first place.
"I fundamentally look at the young men we work with through a trauma-focused lens because, from their earliest memories, there’s been issues of neglect, abuse, deprivation, poverty, racism -- all of which are very traumatizing," Golia explained. "Everyone on staff at GOSO that works with guys directly are licensed social workers, which means we’re also therapists... we often refer out to Article 31 clinics which can provide psychotherapy for longer periods of time, and one of the things that we do when they come home is make sure their health insurance is either turned on or that they apply for it. So the physical health [is taken care of], but yes, also their mental health. Whether or not a guy has a diagnosed mental illness or whether he’s dealing with the interpersonal issues or the legacy of trauma, those are things that he can seek support for."
Also, it's important to note that both Golia, who currently works with men, and Jacobs, who has years of experience working with women, mentioned that females inmates often face additional systemic, institutionalized issues like sexual abuse -- both inside and outside of prison. (Think Pornstache.) In fact, Golia notes that "in many ways, the criminal justice system acts in similar ways that it does in the service of institutional racism -- which is that it’s another apparatus or tool to keep women oppressed and subjugated by trying to control things like reproduction, or their ability to try and free themselves from abusive or challenging circumstances"
"We know that the women who have been involved in the criminal justice system have very high rates of having been exposed to violence and abuse, and high levels of post-traumatic stress untreated," Jacobs adds. "Almost none of that got better while they were locked up. Prisons and jails are traumatizing and make you feel like you have no control. You’re at the whim of corrections officials and inmates that are stronger, more forceful and all of that. So there’s all of that, and then there’s this high percentage of them that are moms, and who want to reconnect with their kids, so they have all those kinds of complexities. I think in some ways those things make it harder."
Jacobs then added that "trauma and victimization" happens to men in prison as well, but "what’s different I think is how they deal with it and whether that makes them more vulnerable to subsequent victimization or not."
Basically, we shouldn't have been that surprised when Taystee, who was a victim throughout her childhood, recidivised when she returned to that abusive home environment without mental health counseling.
How "OITNB" Can Help
Even though things sound pretty grim for recently released inmates -- and they can be -- both Jacobs and Golia admitted that "OITNB" has helped by showing the general public that inmates are, in fact, human. Entertainment can occasionally lead to powerful conversations, and Golia says we should all take heart in the fact that organizations like GOSO are drastically reducing recidivism rates, and helping former inmates to not only survive, but thrive.
Plus, Golia points out that, now that the whole "tough on crime"/War on Drugs effort has backfired, many want those with minor offenses -- things that did not cause physical harm to others, like Nicky's drug use or Taystee's dealing -- to not end up behind bars, for a variety of reasons.
"You have left wing people who are concerned about the human rights issues -- the issues of justice -- and you have right wingers and libertarians who are interested in cost-effective stuff," he said. "You send someone to GOSO, it’s basically free -- for the city, the municipality, the state. You incarcerate someone and that’s tens of thousands of dollars."
If shows like "OITNB" keep opening up the conversation and people like Golia and Jacobs keep fighting for the rights of these inmates, then maybe, by the time "OITNB" is over, Taystee can manage Sophia's hair salon empire while Poussey teaches French and Daya runs marketing campaigns. (Not Pennsatucky, though. She probably needs to stay in jail.)