Sharon Jones on the Pros and Cons of 'Orange Is the New Black' - Rolling Stone
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Sharon Jones on the Pros and Cons of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

The soul singer (and former prison guard) weighs in on what Netflix’s hit show gets right and where it misses the mark

sharon jones orange is the new black

Steven Dewall/Redferns via Getty Images; Netflix

"Man, I'm so mad at you!" Sharon Jones says, before breaking into a hearty laugh. "You got me hooked on this show now! Why did you do this to me?!?" The 58-year-old R&B singer had been told by friends and bandmates for months that she should check out this hot new show Orange Is the New Black, a drama about female prisoners streaming on Netflix. But despite hearing the praise and having met a cast member ("The butch one…she's a buddy of my saxophonist, Neal Sugarman!"), Jones self-admittedly avoided checking it out; prior to joining up with the Dap-Kings and establishing herself as a first-class soul singer, she had worked as corrections officer at Rikers back in the Nineties. "I'd already been in those kinds of environments," Jones says. "So it was like, 'Nah, I don't want to go back there.'"

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But when Rolling Stone asked her to weigh in on the show — how authentic its depiction of prison life was, what did it get right, what did it get wrong — Jones gamely dove in, selecting five episodes "at random" from the show's two seasons. Now, the singer says, she's a bona fide fanatic. "I've got 12 days off before we head to Europe for a tour," Jones declares, "so I'm going back and starting it from the beginning. In fact, as soon as I get off the phone with you, I'm gonna watch two episodes in a row!" She then proceeded to weigh in on Orange's cast of pros and cons, and tell us what the show absolutely nails about life behind bars. By David Fear  

Barbara Nitke for Netflix

Welcome to Prison

Rolling Stone: How close do you think the show gets to capturing prison life?

Sharon Jones: Oh, it's really on point. You know, it's TV, so they're going to add a little bit of stuff to the mix that will make you see, oh come on now!

Rolling StoneCan you give an example?

Sharon Jones: Like, for example: I would never have left an inmate in a spot by themselves for as long as some of the guards in the show do…you gotta keep an eye on folks. And believe me, the inmates are slick; they're watching you just as much as you're watching them.

Let me tell you a story: When I was at Riker's, I was assigned to C74 — that's an ARDC (Adolescent Reception and Detention Center). But there are adults in there as well; if you're waiting to see the judge or get sentenced, they would get holed up in C74. One day, I noticed this young man in the area where, when you first enter the facility, they wash you and check you for lice. I'm watching this kid, and he's not looking good; I can tell something is going on. So I ask him, you okay? Is there a problem, because if there is, honey, I will get you out of here right now. He keeps telling me, yeah, yeah, it's all cool…he's nervous, but he's not budging. 

I turn my back, and I walked over to check on some of the other inmates, and not 10 seconds later I hear this [makes loud thumping noise]. I run back, and the kid is literally holding his eyeball in his hand. Someone had taken his  head and knocked it against this brick wall, and just knocked his eye out. It was, "Who did this?" Nobody saw anything, nobody says anything — including the kid. All I could do was call the guards and get him to the infirmary, pop his eyes back in. You know, welcome to prison. That's something the show understands.


The Guards

Rolling StoneWhat about the portrayal of the guards?

Sharon Jones: Some of the correction officers really are assholes like that guy with the mustache (Pablo Schreiber's character, George "Pornstache" Mendez). If you're a drug addict, a thief, a jerk, and you put on that uniform — then you're just a thieving, drug-addict jerk in a uniform! Some of them really don't need to be mixing it up with them in there…not just becoming their friend, but buying them drugs, having sex with them. I mean, that's crazy! I had a few inmates try to get all up in my business, and I told them: "You should know better than to talk about how you want to get next to me. I've got a man on the outside, and there is nothing in here you could give me that he couldn't give to me better! And don't even think about asking me to bring shit in here for you. Nuh-uh."

So yeah, there is a certain kind of corruption that you'll find among the guards…not all, of course, but some. You'll have officers not doing the right thing, not reporting things…you remember that scene where [Piper and Pennsatucky] are fighting in the snow, and the guard comes out, sees them — then just goes back in? That shit happens. The show is not far off on that subject for sure. That's why I couldn't survive long in there. "You're too nice, Ms. Jones," the inmates would tell me. You got that right.


Jessica Miglio for Netflix

Repeat Offenders

Sharon Jones: Can I tell you why some inmates keep coming back to prison, in my experience?

Rolling StoneWhy?

Sharon Jones: Because it's so corrupt in there that some prisoners figure out how to game the system and then they can do whatever they want. If they know the right connections, they can get their drugs in there; if they know who to pay off or know when someone's not looking, they can do whatever they want to. Orange downplays that a bit — maybe it's different in a women's prison than Rikers — but you can still see when you watch the show how people take advantage of what's broken in there.

But the repeat offenders that either can't function in the real world or don't have a support system to stay out of jail, that's a different story. That character, Taystee (played by Danielle Brooks), the one who gets out and ends up back in there…I've seen a lot of stories like hers. I was glad to see something like that made it in the show.

I wish they'd show this in prisons…I know people in prison have cable, but I can't speak to whether they have Netflix! [Laughs] For inmates to see their lives reflected back at them like this, though…I think it'd make a difference. I'd hope it make some people on the outside stop and think, too: "Do I really want to end up here? Do I really want to be doing this?"


Crazy Eyes

Sharon Jones: One of the episodes I watched…what's the name of the one who keeps bugging her eyes out and acts all crazy?

Rolling Stone"Crazy Eyes."

Sharon Jones: That's what they call her? For real?!? [Laughs] Oh shit, that's funny! Yeah, I ran into a couple of those types when I was a guard…always hitting their heads, always acting nuts. Some of them get their brains burned out by using the drugs in prison, which is rough. Some of them fake it so that people won't step to them. And then others…they're legitimately loony. She seems like the third type. What's the actress' name?

Rolling StoneUzo Aduba. Her character has become a fan favorite.

Sharon Jones: I can see why. She's great. She's already a favorite of mine too, and I haven't even seen all of her episodes. 


Showers, Screwdrivers and Shanks

Rolling StoneIs there anything you think the show totally misses the mark on?

Sharon Jones: I don't know that everyone would be hooking up in the showers that much!

Rolling StoneYou don't think so? 

Sharon Jones: Well, Rikers was a holding pen, so maybe it's different when you're talking about a prison with longer-term convicts…but yeah, I wasn't seeing that happen a lot where I was at. Oh, and when the one convict sneaks the screwdriver out — that was a little tough to believe. It feels a little fabricated. Especially since it's easier to just make a shank…I mean, you'd see these guys make shanks out of anything. An-y-thing! You always had to watch what was around or what you might drop, because some prisoners could take the smallest things and make knives out of them.


Every Prison Has a Pennsatucky…

Sharon Jones: I'm curious to see what happens to the blonde girl [Piper]…you see a lot of people coming into prison, and they're just…they have no idea what to expect. It's interesting to watch her go into survival mode; believe me, in prison, you've got to get there! You can't show fear, because if you do, people will take things from you until there's nothing left. You'll die in there. Every prison has a Piper, every prison has a…what's the name of the girl she beats up in the yard?"

Sharon Jones: Pennsatucky.

Sharon Jones: Right! Every prison has a Pennsatucky, every prison has a Red…it's what made this series fascinating to me because, even before I started getting into the characters as characters, it was like, Oh, I know that person. In Rikers, you had the Italians over here, the Spanish over here, the Blacks here, then there would be your Christians here and your Muslim brotherhood here. It's just like the outside, but in very closed quarters where you have to get along or else. The sense of claustrophobia in Orange is the New Black — that's real. And the whole sense of community in prison…I mean it really has that down. The way they stick together in the lunch room and the rec rooms, they way they mix with each other, the way they protect each other…they have that down cold. You don't get that, you don't get prison. 

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