'Women in Prison': TV Review

Courtesy of Discovery Communications
An imperfect but engrossing docuseries that plays like a real life "Orange Is the New Black"

Investigation Discovery goes behind the scenes with the inmates of Indiana Women's Prison.

When it premiered in 2013, Orange is the New Black was enlightening. The critically acclaimed Netflix series demonstrates that people in prison aren’t necessarily who we think they are; each woman has her own story of how she ended up behind bars.

Just in time for Orange’s third season, Investigation Discovery’s new three-part docuseries Women in Prison takes viewers inside Indiana Women’s Prison, a maximum security facility that's home to 600 inmates. Like the real life Piper Kerman — the inspiration for the fictional Piper Chapman on Orange — the women featured are unlikely convicts (though the facility on Orange is minimum security, not maximum). The premiere focuses on soccer mom Alicia, who is awaiting final sentencing, and preacher’s daughter Hannah, who has been sentenced to 100 years.

Alicia, a married mom, had an addiction to prescription pain-killers. When she realized she needed more drugs than her doctors were willing to prescribe, she discovered an illegal way to get her pills. “No one knew the extent of how much I was taking,” she says. Alicia’s husband only sporadically brings her son to visit her in prison. He files for divorce, requesting sole custody of their child without telling her. Alicia is furious, but also understands where her husband is coming from. “How could any relationship survive when one person can’t trust anything the other person is saying?” she concedes. What stands out about Alicia’s is that she is the primary victim of her own criminal actions.

The same is not true for Hannah, who has been incarcerated since she was 17 years old. Her story is every parent’s worst nightmare: Hannah fell for the wrong boy, with tragic results. “Being smart and being a teacher’s pet ... it wasn’t cool anymore,” she explains about the bad choices she’s made. Hannah’s father is the only visitor she has had during the entire ten years she’s been in prison. Her sweet and sincere demeanor belie her horrific crime.

I’ve avoided disclosing the exact nature of Alicia and Hannah’s offenses because the show does as well. Dramatic reenactments offer a slow reveal and only in the episode’s final moments does the entire story come out. Dramatic reenactments are always a risky proposition. With stilted acting and overwrought music, they inevitably come off like bad community theater. At one point, Alicia’s happy home life shows her and her friends scrapbooking. While the dramatic reenactments in Women in Prison are better than many that permeate the true crime reality genre, they still have that familiar air of melodrama and come off and largely unnecessary.

While the show does contain interviews with other prisoners, the people in Alicia and Hannah’s lives aren’t part of the series. So we never hear from Alicia’s husband or Hannah’s father. Interviews with the people who know and love the prisoners the most would have added additional insight to their stories — as would, perhaps, interviews with the officers who arrested them or the lawyers who represented them.

The show parses fact from fiction. There’s lots of sex on Orange, but Alicia is sent to solitary confinement because she kissed another inmate. Interviews with other inmates shed some light on prison life, but the series still paints an incomplete picture of what the daily grind must truly be like for these women. For example, how did Alicia deal with being in withdrawal while in prison?

At the end of the first episode, Alicia confesses that she’s in a relationship with Lisa, another inmate. “I don’t know how it’s all going to play out, but I know that she’s going to be in my life to stay. She’s my family,” Alicia says. That’s a pretty big statement, and it registers as odd that the show chose not to explore it further, instead abruptly tacking the relationship reveal on to the end of the episode.

Ultimately, Women in Prison feels less like an in-depth exploration of what it really means to be a woman doing time and more like a cautionary tale about how a few bad choices can alter your life forever.

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