The Case of the Foreman in Orange is the New Black

The new season of the popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, saw Litchfield Penitentiary undergo a drastic change in management. While Litchfield was originally to be closed due to financial problems, it was “saved” by the corporation MCC, Management and Corrections Corporation. This change resulted in a new hierarchy of power.

Prior to MCC’s takeover, Joe Caputo was the warden of Litchfield and the equivalent of C. Wright Mills’s foreman described in his book, White Collar. Caputo was the director of all of Litchfield’s activities and employees. After the takeover, Danny Pearson, one of MCC’s higher-ups, claims that the position of warden was “absorbed” by MCC, meaning that it no longer exists. When Caputo questions Pearson about this change, Pearson insists that the role does not exist, though his role as “Director of Human Activity” is essentially that of a warden. When Caputo further questions Pearson about his role in the corporate hierarchy, Pearson rapidly rattles off a list of corporate positions and illustrates them on a white board. While he firmly insists he is not Caputo’s boss as they are “on the same level [in the hierarchy],” his illustration shows that he speaks directly to corporate and reiterates their orders to Caputo. Pearson is also the son of one of MCC’s higher ups, hired not because of his qualifications (in fact, he dropped out of Ohio University) but because his father wanted to give him the opportunity to prove himself capable in the business world. It is Pearson, not Caputo, who is invited to the meetings with the upper management of MCC even though Caputo is an expert when it comes to understanding the daily operations of Litchfield. Because he deals directly with inmates and guards, Caputo is not considered corporate material.

Like Mills’s foreman, Caputo was once a master of his trade. He trained the new guards in self-defense and proper procedure when handling issues between inmates. In Mills’s words, Caputo was “the master craftsman: he knew more about the work processes than any of the men he bossed” (Mills 87). However, Pearson’s managerial position over Caputo allowed him to trump Caputo’s plans in order to save MCC money just as Mills’s foreman is perpetually undercut by upper management. Mills explains, “Each staff innovation, of personnel specialist, safety expert, time study engineer, [director of human activity], diminishes the foreman’s authority and weakens the respect and discipline of his subordinates. The foreman is no longer the only link between worker and higher management, although, in the eyes of both, he is still the most apparent link in the elaborate hierarchy of command and technique between front office and workshop” (Mills 88).

When an inmate goes missing due to a clerical error, Caputo is expected to bring her back without the help of the police or state troopers as that would make his “boss,” Pearson, look bad to his father. Caputo is expected to do the dirty/unfavorable work for MCC without causing a fuss. Mills describes this change when he says, “the pace and character of work in the middle management are coming increasingly to resemble those in the lower ranks of the management hierarchy” (Mills 87). Caputo is expected to do the job of one of the guards, one of his own subordinates.

The pretense of corporate life is shown when Caputo and Pearson go to meet with Pearson’s father (who is as of yet unnamed). Pearson Sr. invites Caputo and his son to a whiskey tasting where he pretentiously tells them to “chew” the whiskey in order to really experience it’s flavor. Pearson Sr. is testing Caputo as well as his son. He wants to force them to put up with his formalities just as Nancy Chorpenning was tested when she went to a lunch interview and was expected to order some form of alcohol. Her new bosses wanted to know if she would be able to entertain clients and whether she fit in with their style of business. Pearson Sr. wants to know if Caputo is able to play the corporate game as well.

As the season progresses, the guards, who are now unsatisfied with their lack of hours and poor working conditions decide to unionize. Caputo is expected to keep everyone happy and willing to work. As Mills puts it, “He is to develop discipline and loyalty by using his own personality as the main tool of persuasion” (Mills 90). Initially, Caputo is on the union side but after an interaction with Natalie Figueroa, his old boss and a business expert, he is convinced to give up his sense of morality and duty to the people in his charge in order to help himself, namely by crushing the union and sucking up to the higher ups at MCC. He has decided to—in the words of Chorpenning—“drink the corporate Kool-Aide.” Mills explains the exact same reason for this decision in reference to the foreman when he states, “The foreman’s anxiety [about being isolated] springs from the fact that the union looks after the workmen; the employer us able to look after himself; but who will look after the foreman?” (Mills 89). The answer Caputo came to is himself. He is the only one who will look out for his best interest.

This entire subplot of business and frustrating bureaucratic nonsense is a familiar one and the negligent, cost-cutting, machine-like portrayal of big business is predictable and expected though nevertheless satisfying to watch like the villain we all love to hate. However, to C. Wright Mills, I imagine there is nothing about this subplot that does not seem dystopic and possibly worse than anything he could have imagined. The idea that prisons could be incorporated and used for slave labor is nothing short of Mills’s worst nightmare and yet to me, this story is almost cathartic as I get to watch the stories of big business with which I have grown up played out and validated.

This (partially imagined) difference in reaction is due to the fact that Mills wrote White Collar at a time when the U.S. was becoming more incorporated, more managerial but I am watching the phenomena play out after the U.S. has become more incorporated than Mill could imagine. To me, there would be absolutely nothing remarkable about Caputo’s story unless I read White Collar. None of the bureaucratic formalities seemed odd or out of place to me as they would for Mills because Mills was writing about a societal phenomenon at a time when no one thought about or realized on a grand scale how the U.S. was changing (at least from what I can gather from talking with my grandparents and older relatives). I, on the other hand, cannot imagine a world that is not this way. Everyone is aware of their position in the hierarchy of power in the U.S., in the corporate sphere that is our entire lives. People just don’t know that their lifestyle can be any different. Basically, what I’m saying is Mills’s dystopian nightmare he saw slowly coming to fruition throughout his lifetime is my normal. So watching Caputo get pushed into a no-win situation between the guards and MCC is satisfying in that it confirms what we already believe to be true about big business and bureaucracy—that corporations are evil and don’t care about anything except creating value for the shareholders.

This is not an original idea for a story or a subplot. It is not as if no one has ever portrayed big business in a bad light before. What is unique about this story is that it portrays a very real, very not-well-known fact, that prisons are becoming privately incorporated, that the United States government is allowing private businesses to make money off of the human beings left in their charge, which to me, begs the question, would this story ever appear on a major media network?

While Netflix may have made deals with large corporations such as Disney and Comcast in the past, it is not owned by any of the major six media conglomerates, Disney, General Electric, Viacom, CBS, News Corp, and Time Warner. These six corporations control ninety-percent of the media in the United States. A major part of their role in society is to tell stories—whether they be news stories or sitcoms—that keep the population placated and under control. This means perpetuating the Golden Myth of the American Dream and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, it means showing that the underdog can (and should) win, and it definitely means not showing the inefficiency and negligence of the corporations that have taken control of almost every penitentiary in the United States. Prisons regulate and control our society, showing that they fail to keep likeable characters like those in Orange is the New Black safe and treated with some level of decency, showing that the corporations are ineffective and cruel (and that they ultimately win—as they did when breaking Caputo’s resolve to act morally—would never be in the interest of the media conglomerates. It would be too real. It would hit too close to home. And it would certainly get people thinking about whether prisons—the ultimate form of control and manipulation—are just or not.

This is not to say that Netflix is the ultimate truth telling media business. Of course it isn’t. Netflix is a large company. In fact, in 2014 it made more money than CBS. However, it’s unique market position and consumer relationship allow it to portray stories that would not make it onto any cable network programming and as it’s net worth grows, it will be interesting to see if it continues this way.