"A bunch of stupid, transphobic bitches": "Orange Is The New Black" takes a devastating look at trans prison violence

Laverne Cox's character Sophia was inspired by a real prison inmate -- and so is the abuse she faces

By Jenny Kutner
Published June 23, 2015 2:48PM (EDT)
Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in "Orange Is the New Black"             (Netflix)
Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in "Orange Is the New Black" (Netflix)

Spoilers for season 3 of "Orange Is The New Black" below.

The newest season of Netflix's hit series "Orange Is The New Black" has been chock full of feminist moments on- and off-screen. From Boo and Pennsatucky's discussion of rape and victim-blaming to actress Ruby Rose's explanation of gender fluidity, the show has made a point of tackling key issues in modern feminism openly and honestly -- and that includes the all-too-common ugliness transgender inmates face in prison and on the outside.

Actress and trans rights advocate Laverne Cox has noted before that her "OTINB" character, Sophia Burset, is based on real-life trans inmate CeCe McDonald, who spent 19 months in a men's prison for defending herself during a racist, transphobic attack. While Sophia is incarcerated in a women's prison for the duration of her sentence (at least, as far as we know), the similarities in her and McDonald's experiences begin early: In season 1, Cox's character is forced to fight for access to her hormones, just as McDonald and other trans inmates -- including Chelsea Manning -- have had to do.

The commonalities in their stories, unfortunately, don't stop there. By season 3, we see Sophia facing intense transphobic violence from the other inmates, with abuse ranging from purposeful misgendering to being beaten mercilessly on the floor of her beauty salon. In addition to being shunned by her formerly accepting friends on the inside, Sophia is left to fend for herself during the assault by a prison guard who witnesses the attack, but fails to intervene. After the incident is reported to Caputo, Litchfield's new corporate overlords agree they must do something. So they lock Sophia in solitary confinement.

"This is bullshit and you both know it," Sophia says to the guards as they come to take her to the SHU.

Bullshit, yes; uncommon, no. Last year, a 16-year-old transgender girl was held in solitary confinement for five weeks at a Connecticut adult prison, despite being a juvenile and without actual charges filed against her. In April, the Department of Justice sided with Ashley Diamond, a trans inmate in a Georgia men's prison, who has sued the state for egregious alleged abuse during her incarceration. Diamond claims that, in addition to being denied the hormones she has taken for nearly two decades, she has also been raped at least seven times by other inmates and thrown in solitary for "pretending to be a woman." The ACLU has indicated that solitary confinement is especially prevalent among gender nonconforming individuals in the criminal justice system, and that trans inmates -- who are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than the general population -- suffer disproportionately in isolation.

"OITNB"'s fictional justification for placing a trans inmate in "special housing" also rings all too true: Sophia's confinement is billed as "protective custody," meant to shield her from the threats to her physical safety she might otherwise face. Because Litchfield can't "weed out the bullies," one of its most marginalized inmates -- and the victim of a hate crime -- is forced to endure an indefinite period in "the box," facing deadly threats to her psychological well-being on top of a gruesome loss of dignity.

And once again, this is where "OITNB" can be considered groundbreaking. In choosing not to shy away from statistics that reveal overwhelming brutality for incarcerated transgender people, the show is offering valuable commentary on the impediments to being trans and staying alive. Violence and isolation are two of the most enduring realities for transgender people, whether they're characters on a TV show or documentary subjects, inside the criminal justice system or out on the street. And neither of those realities is a safe one.

Jenny Kutner

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