'Orange Is the New Black' Launches Criminal Justice Reform Fund

Orange_is_the_New_Black_Poussey_Still - Publicity - H 2016
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Orange_is_the_New_Black_Poussey_Still - Publicity - H 2016

Orange Is the New Black is leaving a legacy in the form of an initiative to help incarcerated women. And it's named after the most memorable character the Netflix prison dramedy left behind.

The Poussey Washington Fund, which takes its namesake from the Litchfield inmate formerly played by Samira Wiley, was announced by creator Jenji Kohan during the New York City premiere for the seventh and final season.

"We have seen how Orange Is the New Black has impacted you and people all over the world," Wiley says in a video announcing the initiative. "We've been honored to tell these stories of these characters, and we've learned first-hand that the system is failing women, both inside and outside of prison walls."

A fictional version of the Poussey Washington Fund is featured in the final season of OITNB, which streams its last 13 episodes July 26. In the final season, Tasha "Taystee” Jefferson, who is played by Danielle Brooks, works to offer micro-loans to women getting out of prison and the storyline inspired Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann to bring an expanded version to life.

"Through the Poussey Washington Fund, our characters can live on and continue to make an impact after the show has come to an end," says Kohan in a statement. "Taystee recognized an opportunity to make a difference for her fellow inmates, and we saw no reason why we couldn’t launch our own initiative to have an effect in the real world."

The fund that launched Thursday features eight nonprofit organizations that focus on a range of issues surrounding prison and criminal justice reform. The hope is that viewers who are impacted by the Emmy-winning series — and the timely but shocking death of Poussey Washington, a hopeful black inmate who was murdered by a white corrections officer in season four — will be motivated to show their support. The seventh season ends with a title card that prompts viewers to visit crowdrise.com/PWF.

"There are charities in place that are doing really good work, so the fund identifies and supports those charities," Kohan explains to THR.

The Poussey Washington Fund includes organizations that focus on many issues that have been tackled in the groundbreaking series and will continue to play a major thematic role in OITNB's powerful final run. The preexisting advocacy groups focus on criminal justice reform, protecting immigrant rights, ending mass incarceration and supporting women who are affected by the prison industrial complex. The organizations include: A New Way of Life: Reentry Project, Anti Recidivism Coalition, College & Community Fellowship, Freedom for Immigrants, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Woman and Girls, unPrison Project, Women’s Prison Association.

When speaking to THR about turning the fund into a reality, Herrmann said they picked organizations that worked with them for the final season or had previous relationships with the actors/activists among the cast. OITNB consultant Piper Kerman, whose memoir inspired the series, also helped to identify the right groups.

"Two of the organizations work on immigrant detention and the other six are organizations around the country that focus on women in the criminal justice system and work on a host of different things," Kerman tells THR. "And a number of them are led by formerly incarcerated women, which is really important to all of us who are associated with the fund."

Since writing Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison and spawning the Netflix series, Kerman has advocated for prison reform and sits on the board of one of the organizations in the fund, the Women's Prison Association, which provides housing, family reunification housing and a host of other services to aid reentry into society upon release (something that her TV alter ego, Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, will also be showcasing in the final season). 

"These are programs, quite frankly, that should be replicated in every state in the country. So I am very hopeful that the fans will take their enthusiasm and channel it to give to the fund and/or to make efforts in their own communities," says Kerman. "Because there are worthy efforts happening all over this country. Anything that is serving women and girls in the criminal justice system is pretty scrappy and needs all the support it can get. The Poussey Washington Fund has the potential to be really transformative to these organizations and I believe the fans will absolutely rise to the challenge."

Wiley witnessed the power of the OITNB platform firsthand after the death of Poussey. The fan favorite was killed off the show in a provocative episode that invoked the Black Lives Matter movement; Poussey dies when an untrained guard accidentally suffocates her when pinning her down with his knee, and he subsequently goes unpunished for the death. "There are people who are watching television who might not have a personal relationship with Black Lives Matter, but they know Poussey," Wiley said at the time of the impact she hoped the storyline would generate. "[Jenji] wants people to not be able to shake this off."

Kerman also recently saw the impact OITNB stories can have when she urged lawmakers to pass criminal justice reforms to improve conditions for female inmates. During her testimony, a clip from the first season of the series was shown to help illustrate her point and she says you could have heard a "pin drop" in the room.

"I testified on Capitol Hill for a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on women and girls in the criminal justice system and the committee chose to screen the scene when Maria Ruiz [played by Jessica Pimentel] is returned to Litchfield immediately after giving birth [in season one]," Kerman recalls to THR of the July 16 hearing. "It's a short clip; there’s virtually no dialogue but it’s so emotionally powerful. So whether the show has been dramatizing issues around pregnancy and reproductive justice, or this separation of families — which has been taking place in this country for decades ever since the incarceration rate for women began to skyrocket — the show has depicted that in a way that people can really understand on an emotional level. You could have heard a pin drop in that room."

During the premiere event, Kohan and Herrmann announced the Poussey Washington Fund with the moving video featuring Wiley and other members of the OITNB cast who surprised a series of fans who shared relatable stories.

Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of Orange Is the New Black, now streaming on Netflix.