Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, appalling cases of police brutality have gained much deserved publicity and entered the foreground of public consciousness. Like most, I find many of these stories unthinkable. An African American man who’s pulled over for a busted tail-light is shot dead while reaching for his license? A hard-working street peddler from Guinea is brutally shot 41 times for looking “suspicious” while simply stepping outside his apartment for some fresh air? How does this happen? When horrific miscarriages of justice such as these occur, who do we condemn? who do we hold responsible?
Sometimes the officer is at fault: he’s prejudiced or power-hungry. But other times both perpetrators and victims of police brutality are casualties of larger social, historical forces: widespread racial bias, lack of training, or the justice system in general.
The most obvious victim of the Orange is the New Black’s season finale is Poussey. After a season simmering with racial tension, it was satisfying to see Litchfield’s women unite against the malevolently punitive Piscatella. Outraged that a guard was killed on his watch, he forcefully grabs a feeble-looking Red by the arm and makes an announcement to the cafeteria:
“Things have been pretty lax around here if you ask me, so lax, in fact, that one of my men was murdered on prison property by one of you. It seems like somewhere along the way, everyone around here forgot the only thing that matters. You’re criminals and you deserve nothing.”
Here, Piscatella embodies a pernicious belief in “us vs. them.” Because he demonizes the inmates under his watch and is so quick to dehumanize them (Alex is not a person with justifiable reasons for defending herself against a guard who was about to whack her…she is a ruthless, cold-hearted killer), he immediately breaks up a peaceful protest, which leads to riotous chaos and Poussey’s unnecessary murder.
Of all Litchfield’s inmates, Poussey didn’t deserve to die: she wasn’t a violent offender or gang banger-hell, she barely even qualified as a “criminal.” When the MCC’s lawyers try to paint Poussey as a dangerous threat to excuse Bailey’s excessive use of force (and, more importantly, save themselves from a PR nightmare and potentially very expensive lawsuit), they come up with diddly squat. “She was convicted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute…not even half an ounce!” they groan defeated. “Even her intake shot is adorable!”
As is characteristic of Orange is the New Black, the last episode relies on the clever use of flashbacks to relay characters’ back stories. In “Toast Will Never Be Bread Again” the device is never used so poignantly. After Poussey is accidentally murdered, we see her on the night before her arrest. The night-much like her future-beckons with magical possibility: she parties with a hilarious group of drag queens who say she looks like Whitney, smokes a joint with an Improv group dressed as monks and contemplates her exciting new life in Amsterdam, a life-we know- she’ll never have.
As is often the case in instances of police brutality, we may feel tempted to villanize Bayley as a bigoted, corrupt cop. But Bayley, too, is a victim. Orange is the New Black consistently portrays him as one of the only “good” guards along with Coates (though Coates’s membership in that class is more debatable). Bayley’s involvement in Piper’s panty smuggling ring seems laughably innocent compared to Hump’s sicko mind games and Piscatella’s cruel refusal to let Red sleep.
Is Bayley flawed? Yes. But he’s also redeemable. Though he participates in the idiotic mischief of adolescence- he trespasses to climb a terrifyingly high water tower and smoke pot, he indirectly steals from his boss when he gives away $30 of free ice cream a day to cute girls- he isn’t malicious. When Bayley and his friends embark on yet another one their juvenile shenanigans and egg his ex-boss’s house, he participates willingly. “No one fires Baxter Bayley!” he laughs, reassured.
Later as the boys pass through the crimson trees of the Litchfield prison grounds, they see half a dozen inmates raking leaves. “Everyone armed?” Bayley’s handsome, Abercrombie-looking friend asks excitedly, “On my count. One, two, three!” Bayley and his friends then chuck eggs at the unsuspecting women. “You think that’s funny?” Frieda screams infuriated, “I’m a fucking human being!” Seeing Frieda’s reaction, the futility of her outrage (after all, he gets to drive away; she gets shoved by a CO and is forced to go back to work), Bayley’s boyish amusement quickly metamorphoses into empathy…and shame at his own behavior.
What’s brilliant about Orange is the New Black is that it recognizes the fundamental unfairness of holding Bayley completely accountable for Poussey’s murder. At first, MCC’s lawyers want to shift blame onto Poussey but when they realize that’s not going to work, they decide to use Bayley as a scapegoat. But in the end, is it fair to point the finger at either party? Poussey never posed a threat, never displayed a predilection for violence but Bayley wasn’t a rouge cop either: he was simply an incompetent, poorly trained guard whose lack of training led him to panic and make a fatal error.
The season finale’s genius lies in this very ambiguity. Though we as an audience possess enough context to recognize the impossibility of neatly classifying those involved as perpetrators and victims, the question of responsibility obstinately asserts itself throughout the episode: if Bayley’s not to blame, who is?
Despite MCC’s attempts to craft a “story” and cast clear villains and victims, we know the real story is far more complex than that. Poussey wouldn’t have died had Piscatella not irresponsibly ordered the guards to break up a peaceful protest. She wouldn’t have died had Humps not forced two mentally unstable inmates to barbarically fight the night before. And she wouldn’t have died had Crazy Eyes not been so traumatized from brutalizing her former lover that she started attacking Bayley. Poussey’s murder is the tragic result-not of a single man’s misconduct-but of a system, which makes her death all the more upsetting. After all, individuals can be thrown in prison- systems cannot.
The only character that bridges the perpetrator/victim divide is Caputo, whose negligence throughout the season makes him a tacit accomplice in MCC’s failures. In many ways, Caputo is also a victim. Whenever he wants to make positive changes at Litchfield, he meets yet another road block in his path: if it’s not maddening bureaucracy, it’s the heartless, corporate obsession with the bottom line. At one point in the season, he tries to launch an educational program only to have most of his ideas scraped. “What happened to all my classes?” he asks Linda as he hopelessly searches Litchfield’s course catalog, “There’s no science, no English, no math. None of these classes were in my original proposal!” Turns out rehabilitation through education was just a ploy to exploit free labor. Rather than offer real courses that could break the nasty recidivism cycle, MCC decides to provide “life skill” classes like “Cement 101” instead. Caputo’s understandably upset but- like Figueroa before him- his hands are tied with red tape.
This is just one of Caputo’s many compromises: at first, he compromises his ideas for restorative justice reforms like education and, at first, such compromises seem reasonable. After all, “Cement 101” might not be exactly what he envisioned but at least it’s a start. But as the season progresses, we see Caputo strike a Faustian bargain of sorts: to be warden, he exchanges his morality for a sharp $1,000 suit. Even though he knows he should be at Litchfield after they’ve discovered a guard’s body, he lets his girlfriend convince him to stay home. Caputo may be one of the only morally upstanding members of MCC’s privatized prison machinery but he’s still guilty by association. It’s his absence that enables this tragedy in the first place. What if he had been there the night the body was found? What if he had fired Piscatella? Like the first domino, what Caputo does (or doesn’t do) sets a whole chain of events in motion.
On one hand, Caputo’s refusal to scapegoat Bayley at the end of the episode is a triumph but- as film critic Myles McNutt notes– “it is a hollow victory. It is a victory in that he is resisting the narrative MCC is presenting, but it is a failure in that it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of what really happened in that cafeteria.” Caputo may accurately recognize that Bayley was a “victim of circumstance” but-by refusing to name the true perpetrator-he condones the actual forces responsible for Poussey’s murder. In his statement, he never mentions Humps, he never mentions Piscatella. More importantly, he never mentions the million and one institutional failures that culminated in this disaster. And the cost of these failures is high. Just as toast can never be bread again, Bayley can never recover his innocence and Poussey can never be brought back to life.
So when horrific miscarriages of justice happen, who do we hold responsible? There’s no one to blame but the system that renders such events inevitable.
“This place crushes anything good,” a distraught Caputo warns Bayley, “It’s like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs and now it’s stumbling around crushing whole cities. You can’t survive it.”
“Which one are you, the city or the monster?” asks Bayley.
“Neither,” he stutters, “Both…Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”