Burning Question: How Accurate Is ‘Orange Is the New Black’?

Leslie Gornstein

How accurate a look at prison life is Netflix's buzzy dramedy "Orange Is the New Black"?

The average gray-bar hotel allows precisely none of what you see on the show — no makeup, no jewelry, no parties in a rec room festooned with toilet paper, no metallic duct-tape “flair” on an inmate’s shower shoes, no free use of a microwave.

“A microwave?” defense attorney David Diamond marveled to me when I ran this question past him. “Are you kidding me? You could hit someone over the head with that."

“And the majority of women’s institutions do not allow makeup.”

But the women’s facility in Danbury, Connecticut — the model for the Litchfield lockup on "OITNB" — is the farthest thing from your typical jail. It’s minimum-security, it’s run by the federal government, and has microwaves. And yes, makeup, too.

According to the prison’s commissary list of items available for purchase, inmates may chose between four shades of eye shadow, four shades of lip gloss, and five foundations, along with mascara and other basics.

And, yes, you can get your hair did at Litchfield-style prisons, too.

(Prison officials in Danbury declined to comment for this story.)

Just as Sophia runs the salon on the Netflix show, wardens will often hire qualified inmates ranks to do hair in real-life federal minimum-security women’s prisons.

“It helps people learn a business so that when they’re released then have a skill they can take to the outside,” says Cheri Nolan of Federal Prison Consultants.

Jewelry is also fine at these kinds of prisons, as long as they’re religious items or wedding rings. And sure, contraband such as secret cell phones routinely show up at Danbury-style clinks.

“You can’t stop contraband from coming in,” federal prison consultant Jack Donson tells me. “It’s a 'Hogan’s Heroes' type of thing.”

All that said, a few scenes in the show seem like a stretch, even for a minimum-security hoosegow. Let’s start with the toilet-paper decorating.

“Some of the prisons now are moving toward individual allocation of toilet paper, rather than just providing them freely in the lavatories,” says Pat Berdan of Executive Prison Consultants. “It’s to take away the waste factor, because in so many of the prisons, inmates use toilet paper to line the seams of bathroom stall doors.”

Assuming the stalls even have doors, of course.

And parties — even goodbye fetes for fellow inmates — are frowned upon “as a general rule,” Berdan says.

As for the shower-room scenes, in which inmates casually walk around topless and compliment each other’s breasts, that also rang false to Berdan.

“Most inmates towel off and put on clothes before they exit a shower stall” instead, he tells me. “They don’t go around flaunting their bodies. That’s a very sensitive, private kind of thing; it’s all related to homosexuality, which is a very sensitive topic.”

"Orange Is the New Black" is currently streaming on Netflix.