The Real Housewives of Prison

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The following article contains Orange is the New Black and The Real Housewives of New Jersey spoilers.

There has been a lot of prison in my week thus far.

After a couple weeks of slacking, I resumed watching the new season of Orange is the New Black after I got off work on Sunday. I finished a couple episodes then paused to tune into the long-awaited season premiere of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. The premiere welcomed back Teresa Giudice from a 15-month sentence at the Federal Correction Institution in Danbury— coincidentally the prison that inspired Piper Kerman’s memoir and consequently the Netflix series. The episode on Bravo ended and I immediately switched back to Netflix, where I proceeded to bawl my eyes out at the season finale (seriously, if you haven’t finished it— what are you doing!?).

I realized quickly that the theme of prison in my entertainment bridged a bit of a gap. The fictitious world of Orange and the semi-ficticious world of Housewives each introduced a very real construction that seemed intangible before. We all know that prison exists, but familiarizing oneself with its actual implications is a rarity. Surely we know what war and famine are, yet we never have to experience it for ourselves. Prison is like this for many of us; it is unreachable.

Orange is the New Black brought prison within our reach upon its release in 2013. The cultural richness of the series deserves an article all on its own— but the masterpiece of a series unlocked a setting we had not gone to before. Orange is no Shawshank Redemption in that it deals with the present in prison rather than escaping it. The series garnered dozens of favorite characters for viewers, each with their own relatable quirks. As we sit on our couches, our records free of armed robbery or murder, Orange is the New Black is able to convince us that the inmates are just like us.

A franchise that monetizes off of the just like us sentiment is Bravo’s The Real Housewives. Extending to now nine U.S. cities, the Housewives series gives us all a peak into the lives of affluent women and their families. The Real Housewives of New Jersey has been regarded as one of the more intriguing branches of the franchise, as it sheds a light on a widely misunderstood (and stereotyped) subculture in America. Only a small percentage are able to claim themselves as part of the wealthy Jersey-girl society that abides in Franklin Lakes. Yet every Sunday, millions of viewers tune into Bravo to watch the drama unfold among their favorite reality stars. We have so little in common with the Housewives, but are deeply connected with what we do share.

It was when the main star of RHONJ Teresa Giudice was convicted on felony charges of fraud and embezzlement that her television character took a vast leap forward into our reality. Sure, she had previously graced several magazine covers with her children to show she was a mother just like us. She wrote a best-selling cookbook full of family recipes to show her interests were just like ours. We even watched her do monotonous tasks on the show like paperwork, kid drop-off duty and go shopping. But nothing could compare to the announcement that Teresa would be serving a 15-month sentence in prison. The fabulous Teresa Giudice was a person who had broken the law and was capable of having her rights taken away— just like us.

Orange is the New Black and The Real Housewives of New Jersey share the same voyeuristic aspect. We know that far away from our lives the dismal solitude of prison exists, as does the lavish and loud part of New Jersey. Funny how we imagine ourselves never making it to either of those worlds— while Teresa made it to both. As Orange has taught us over the last four seasons, anyone can go to prison. Women with families, careers, dreams— even million-dollar reality show contracts.

As Teresa recounts in her new memoir Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again, many of the prison rituals portrayed in Orange’s Litchfield are true. She writes of many sleepless nights, inedible cafeteria food and around-the-clock lesbian sex between her cellmates. Before, we had experienced prison from the perspective of the lovable characters of Orange is the New Black and their many shenanigans. Though we laughed, cried and felt with them, in the end it was only ever fiction. But now we were able to experience a woman we observed weekly be sent away to the same circumstances. The children the mothers on Orange spoke of so longingly were now Gia, Gabriella, Milania and Audriana— the girls we watched grow up each Sunday. Housewives cast members from various spin-offs had left on their own terms before, but never under the enforcement of the law. Teresa’s prison sentence was not only a tragedy to her family, but a reality check for us all.

Though both series are influential as they are socially relevant, I am afraid their similarity stops there. Teresa’s prison sentence rang a little louder in our ears, but the tumultuous prison life for all the inmates at Litchfield resonate deeper in our hearts. Somehow the scripted series managed to show me a more raw reality than the captured “reality” of Housewives.

Orange is not bashful in addressing social issues by any means. Quite frankly, in four seasons no stone has been left unturned. The most recent season however, focuses like never before on the many shortcomings of prison as a system. In the middle of the new season, inmate Aleida Diaz is told she will be released early. Though her character is tough and aggressive, she is visibly frustrated and scared about her future on the outside. She works tirelessly studying to pass GED test and begins considering employment options— she says, in a self-deprecating way, her only skill is bagging heroin.

When she is released, Aleida waits on a ride from her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend. She is cold, uncomfortable in the baggy clothes the prison handed her and has $40 in her pocket. Without giving too much away, Aleida finds herself sleeping on an untrustworthy family member’s couch. She doesn’t know how to locate any of her five children in foster care around the city and is, judging by the pain in her eyes, hopeless.

Aleida’s situation in no way resembled Teresa Giudice’s experience in being released from prison. On Sunday night, we watched as Teresa’s children hung “WELCOME HOME” banners about their mansion and paparazzi lined down their expansive driveway. Teresa was picked up in a luxury black Suburban with a private driver (it was too late for her husband to go out with the kids in bed). After the long drive, Teresa exited the vehicle with a full face of makeup and professionally straightened hair, wearing a leather jacket and matching boots. Of course the camera crew was there to capture the sweet reconnecting moments between husband and wife and their children. It was heartwarming to watch and again reminded me of the time prison reaps from people.

It’s fair to assume that the first few weeks of Teresa’s return was an adjustment period for her. Adjusting to the family climate again and being reintroduced to the safety and warmth of home and community. She did not have to adjust like Orange is the New Black’s Aleida, who is representative of the situation so many released from prison find themselves in. The promotional clips at the end of the premiere episode featured Teresa and the other Housewives bickering, gossiping and yelling. Teresa and the other castmates fight over who lied to whom over expensive lunches and at the gym. Teresa Giudice never had to acclimate to society post-prison. Her life will continue on and leave behind prison as a motivator to succeed.

The American prison system is a broken institution. By not rehabilitating its inmates back into the real world, we are left with a rotten cycle that makes every sentence a life sentence. That is the stark difference between Teresa Giudice and the inmates she shared walls with for 15 months: she gets her life back and they might not. Orange is the New Black teaches its viewers plenty about humanity— especially among groups they may not be familiar with. The series verifies that prison extends beyond the inside, halting the lives of all those sentenced. Orange is the New Black is able to educate us on the nature of prison and open up a reality that secretly affects so many. In this bizarre case, reality is offered to us by binge-watching a scripted series rather than reality television— a step away from real life.