Neoliberal Agency in Orange is the New Black

by Sandy Bonnington


When the new series of Orange is the New Black graced Netflix screens all over the world in June 2015, we all became hooked on the latest adventures of the Litchfield ladies in the wake of last series’ dramatic finale. New characters, major changes, and distressing scenes saw Piper and the rest of the inmates facing trials and tribulations like never before under the menacing backdrop of the prison’s privatization. Aside from the many issues this program raises regarding gender, race and sexuality (to name a few!), this season we saw neoliberal restructuring take a major role in the prisoners’ lives with the chaotic movement from public to private ownership. The privatization of the criminal justice system is becoming increasingly common in America and elsewhere as a way of dealing with overcrowding and in order to shift prison operation costs from the public sector (Volskay, 2011). In fact, in 2011 the corrections service market, including federal and state prisons, had an estimated value of $70 billion in the US.

With this move to private ownership several major changes and conflicts unfold. These include a power struggle between Prison Warden Joe Caputo and the new management; the cutting of red tape leading to inefficient training of staff resulting in an unfortunate pepper-spray incident; and a new, mysterious and very-well-paid work detail created for prisoners. It turns out that this new job involves making ladies’ underwear for a company called Whispers, which has outsourced to the prison to take advantage of the low cost of employing incarcerated workers. Since 1999, American prisoners have been involved in the activities of private companies as a cheap alternative to offshore outsourcing.

While there are issues here to do with the lack of agency and the vulnerability of prisoners working for privately owned and operated companies (Volskay, 2011), these jobs may be more appealing to prisoners than other work details as shown in the show.

Orange is the New Black captures this phenomenon of outsourcing in a subtle but effective way. Furthermore the show’s leading lady, Piper, uses this new job as an opportunity to exert agency within the constraints of prison life. After being assigned to making underwear for the outside world, Piper contrives a plan to use the leftover material to secretly make extra pairs of panties. With help from some fellow prisoners and her brother on the outside, Piper creates a dirty-panties business, selling soiled underwear to buyers online. It’s a risky game (Piper is technically stealing from the prison) but she manages to pull it off and the cash starts rolling in for her and her panty-wearing inmates. Even though this is a fictional program and the events at Litchfield can’t be taken as a direct depiction of reality, there are some very interesting and real comparisons that can be drawn.

Rebecca Prentice’s (2015) study of a garment factory in Trinidad depicts an activity known locally as “thiefing a chance,” which involves workers covertly creating exact copies of garments on the assembly line to take home and wear. These hidden activities involve the same kinds of risk-taking and mutual cooperation on the shop floor as Piper’s secret panty operation in Litchfield. Factory workers in Trinidad would also memorize high-fashion patterns to incorporate into their own home seamstress businesses, using the skills learned in the factories to pursue their own entrepreneurial projects and make additional income. The notion of “thiefing a chance” reflected in Piper’s entrepreneurial activities within Litchfield is seen not so much as stealing, despite the fact it may well be in the eyes of the management, but as an opportunity to “do something for yourself” like the garment workers in Trinidad (Prentice, 2015).

Many other ethnographic accounts have noted similar examples of agency under neoliberalism and their link to emerging neoliberal subjectivities. What it means to be “a self” has shifted under neoliberal capitalism, with individuals increasingly “owning” themselves as one would own a business or a collection of skills, assets, and alliances that must be sustained and enhanced (Gershon, 2014: 288). The hybrid, flexible and fluid character of neoliberal selves and subjectivities enable individuals to move through different contexts in a reflexive manner (Gershon, 2014). While OITNB is a fictional TV show, I think it cleverly projects these ideas which have been found in real-life anthropological study to show the ways in which global processes affect individuals and how they are dealt with, resisted, and utilized, even in the most restricted circumstances.

With such a complex, entwined, and exciting plot, it can be difficult to look beyond the surface of each episode of OITNB to see the bigger picture and how it dramatises real global processes. I’m looking forward to the release of Season 4 in June, when my fellow OITNB fans and I can binge watch our favourite ladies and see what’s new in Litchfield.

Sandy Bonnington is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.


Gershon, I. (2014) “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR, 37 (2): 281–295.

Overby, S. (2010) “Prison Labor: Outsourcing’s ‘Best Kept Secret.’CIO, 27th May 2010.

Prentice, R. (2015) Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.

Volskay, T. (2011) “Privatization of Prisons.” League of Women Voters.


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