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5 Legal Lessons From 'Orange Is the New Black'

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Netflix's latest original series, "Orange Is the New Black," features not only an ensemble cast of incredible actors giving the audience a peek into the world of women's prisons, it also serves as a conversation starter for legal issues facing female inmates.

With the fewest amount of spoilers possible, here are five legal lessons seen in the Netflix-streamed dramedy:

1. Statutes of Limitations Are Important.

The protagonist of "Orange Is the New Black," Piper Chapman, is charged by federal indictment more than a decade after she commits the crimes that land her in prison. Unfortunately for Chapman, the statute of limitations for her crime is 12 years.

Generally, federal crimes have a five-year statute of limitations. But if someone commits a capital crime (i.e., murder) or commits child sex abuse, then there is no time limit for the government to prosecute those crimes.

2. Mandatory Minimums Are a Bummer.

Chapman takes a plea bargain for her involvement in her ex-girlfriend's drug trafficking ring because her attorney (her current boyfriend's father) advises her not to take a chance with federal mandatory minimums on sentencing.

Because these laws take much of the discretion away from sentencing decisions, first offenders like Chapman can face very long sentences if they are convicted.

3. Sex With Inmates Is Rape.

Many of the correctional officers (COs) in "Orange Is the New Black" have strained emotional or romantic entanglements with the inmates under their watch. But as the show is astute to point out, even consensual sex between inmates and their COs is rape.

Due to the imbalance of power between guards and prisoners, many federal courts have determined that inmates are essentially unable to legally consent to sex with a CO, so the defense of consent for a rape charge is unavailable.

4. Same-Sex Searches Not Guaranteed.

The female inmates of "Orange Is the New Black" are repeatedly searched by male guards, and when one of them requests a female pat-down, she is thrown in solitary confinement -- the dreaded "SHU" ("Special Housing Unit").

While inmates can make claims under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments when they are groped or molested during a search, there is no constitutional guarantee that a guard of your gender will search you.

5. It Is Easy to Extend Your Time

As Chapman and the other inmates of the New York federal prison in "Orange Is the New Black" quickly learn, even a misplaced screwdriver (a potential weapon, in the eyes of prison guards) can mean months or even years added to their sentences.

Even if you do serve your time, like the law book-reading Taystee, you may be left facing a harsh world outside with little to no assistance, in addition to a parole system that often ensures that women will not be out of orange (or beige) for long.

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