Opioids in Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black characters

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has returned on Netflix for its fifth season. The series delves into the lives of women in prison. A judge sentenced and imprisoned these women for a federal crimes. However, instances beyond their control including corruption, drug smuggling, funding cuts, overcrowding and guard brutality adversely affect the prisoners’ health and well-being. Furthermore, the prison’s ability to meet its basic responsibility and ethical obligations as a federal corrections facility, is also jeopardized.

So, given this context, what does the first episode of the fifth season of OITNB have to with the opioid epidemic? How does the show implicitly give us warnings of the dangers of opioids and possible overdose?

SPOILER ALERT: A word of caution for those who watch OITNB, there are spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, here are other articles regarding the opioid epidemic.

The Riot

A riot has broken out in the prison, there is misbehavior and misconduct occurring in every nook and cranny of the prison. In one little corner, two inmates are trying to break into the locked up medical dispensary, looking to get their hands on prescription opioids to get high. They need a key to get into the dispensary, yet bang on the cage in their hopes for a high.

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Craving Access

The two inmates have a brief discussion on the various opioids available. They query each other, going through a list of opioids. This makes their cravings ever more intense. Eventually, they settle on fentanyl as the strongest and the most desired, if only they could get through the locked gate. In the midst of this conversation, you can see an opioid overdose warning poster in the background.

On the flip side, two other inmates, Nicky and Lorna, are trying to convince the first two inmates to let them potentially share in the drugs (assuming they can get the loot). Nicky is a former heroin addict, and Lorna is a foil for Nicky’s continued sobriety. Lorna attempts to thwart Nicky from even attempting to get the opioids, reminding Nicky of her addiction, and how far she has come into sobriety. However, Nicky suggests that drugs would not be for herself, but for selling in the underground prison market.

Getting Opioids

Eventually, Nicky and Lorna, amongst all the mayhem in the prison, are able to procure a key, and make a deal with the first two inmates. Suffice it to say, Nicky and Lorna are able to get into the medical dispensary, including the opioids. Further, Nicky and Lorna give the first two inmates what they want, the opioid filled high. Towards the end of the episode, the first two inmates are passed out on the floor, on top of each other. Whether this is an overdose or not remains unclear.

Opioid Warnings and Dangers

While OITNB does not explicitly discuss the dangers of opioids and opioid overdoses, one can see the warnings in place.

  1. Prescription opioids are controlled substances under lock and key, and should be taken under medical supervision. The inmates had to go through great lengths in the midst of prison disorder, in order to gain unwarranted access. Similarly, in real life, opiate dependent people might go to greater and greater lengths to get the drugs in order to feed their addiction.
  2. Warnings of opioid overdose exist, as with the opioid overdose poster in the background. However, just like in real life, the forewarning might be part of the periphery, and not part of the focal point.
  3. The opioid epidemic is a real phenomena, but how we react to the epidemic is another issue. Is it better to send opioid dependent individuals to prison? Or is it better to get them the help they need to move towards sobriety? Does imprisonment actually help or hinder the chances of becoming opiate-free?

Sometimes, fiction has a way of bringing the truth to the forefront. Although the setting of OITNB is in prison, in this vignette, it yields insight into how we as a society might deal with the opioid crisis. Layers of safeguards are in place to protect us. The dangers and warning are in plain site, but at the same time, we may not heed the prescient advice.