Saturday, August 8, 2015

Unité 9, the Canadian Orange is the New Black

In an ever-increasing TV market where competition for dominance of audience attention is a high priority, adapting long-term serials (Game of Thrones) or high concept premises (a notebook that kills people) are used to increase market share.  Another under-utilized but successful feature is to have an episode that explores a theme that's Ripped from the Headlines.  Some shows manage to take this further, and base their premise on that very controversial subject, since it'll be fresh in their audience's memory, and people are starved for any meaning behind said issues, because people relate more to stories than dry facts.

A running background subject on DaVinci's Inquest was the lack of police competence on the Pickton Murders (before he was finally caught)  The Good Wife was created as a response to a devoted woman standing by her husband, Eliot Spitzer, despite his infidelity.  Likewise, Unité 9 was borne out of a response to Karla Homolka, a Canadian female serial killer.  When she was convicted, there were complaints that she seemed to be enjoying her captivity, and having what amounted to a good time.  To people outside, they felt that she should've been deep in misery and not yuking it up, despite her imprisonment.
Danielle Trottier had the idea of doing a series on a women's prison after reading a report from Louise Arbour, on the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston 13. She then took five years of research, particularly by regularly visiting the penitentiary in Joliette. She met several inmates, "intelligent, sensitive people, extremely generous in the change process."  It's no great secret that Unité 9 is based on the Joliette penitentiary.

Marie Lamontagne, a teacher and a widowed mother of two girls has been sentenced to jail due to her attempted murder on her father.  In addition to seeing Marie deal with a side of the justice system she's remained willfully ignorant about, we also get to see how her family deals with having their sole living parent in jail.  Saying they're upset about the whole thing is putting it mildly.

As a former schoolteacher, Marie Lamontagne is less naive than Piper Chapman's wide-eyed innocence, which can become somewhat annoying at times.  Even so, Marie is still shocked at the extent of the prison system, which no previous knowledge could possibly prepare her for.  Orange is the New Black is more of a comedy than a drama, and Marie is shipped off to Lietteville instead of Litchfield, a minimum to medium security prison, with Max and Solitary holdings for high-risk troublemakers.

Men's prison shows like OZ, are claustrophobically limited within their prison walls, but women's prisons have the advantage of showing life outside the walls.  We see interaction of the guard's home life, as well as the prisoner's family reactions.  Unité 9 primarily devotes time to a singular unit, housing up to 6 women, with occasional snippets into Unit 7, the hardcore drug dealer group.  The focus may be on a smaller group of inmates, compared to Orange, but the emotional baggage is just as heavy, if not heavier.  (Be sure to expect a lot of emotional crying)

In some ways, its amusing to see the similar parallels between the two shows, and how they handle them.
A typical American sentence can go all the way up to 150 years to life (served consequently), while the maximum sentence one can get in Canada is 25 years, giving at least the prospect of an "out" rather than dangling false hope before the inmate's eyes.

While criminals are kept in a secure location, it's recommended that they fill their days with worthwhile activities.  Whether it's sewing men's underwear in the sweatshop, doing yardwork / cleaning duties or handling the commissary, even if such menial chores may not always be up to their intellectual capability, the important thing is to keep busy.  The biggest threat to their mental well-being isn't time, but boredom.

The most remarkable and striking feature of Unité 9 is how different Canadian women's prisons are from American ones.  Where American prisons are built around intimidation and punishment, Canadian prisons are built more around the principle of rehabilitation.  These facilities are built around the premise that the women criminals need to understand that what they did was wrong, and that their actions have consequences.  In fact, you could call this a plainsclothes prison.  Usually, the general mandate around prison is that you're supposed to wear one kind of uniform to remove all sense of individuality.  But in Lietteville, you're allowed to bring in 35 items (socks, shirts, pants, shoes, underwear) for the duration of your stay, whether it's for six months or 25 years.

They're also given a limited budget for cooking food, which is to be shared with the rest of your residents.  As a result, most prisoners opt for cheap meals consisting of pasta, chickpeas and rice, which isn't very nutritious or healthy.  Furthermore, if you show signs of rehabilitation, you're allowed to go out with an escorted guard, who'll be wearing plainclothes to help the prisoner around so they'll get used to the idea of getting back into the world they've been away from a long time.  If the prisoner shows further signs of improvement, they're allowed to go out via unescorted leaves, provided they come back to the prison on time.

In an Olivia Goldsmith book, Insiders, one of the fallacies that's pointed out is that Men's prisons are built around the premise that when released, they're not allowed to have outside contact with people connected to crime.  But with women, they're wired differently, and are less likely to be repeat offenders.  When they're released, chances are that the women prisoners will have little outside contact, and the support system they've developed inside the prison may be more reassuring than the people outside.  Depriving a woman of social contact is like keeping a flower from water and sunlight.  It'll shrivel away and die, otherwise.

In fact, the interior of a woman's prison is very unlike the cold sterile walls of an American prison.  Our first glimpse of a woman's cell looks more like the interior of an apartment than anything else.  There's the main room, with a kitchen, dining table, rooms for the individual prisoners, a bathroom and a washing room.
It's like a small community than anything else, and there's a panic button (as well as an intercom) in case things get too overheated, and the guards can come anytime the alarm goes off.
"Don't need 'em.  They're in our minds.Sometimes they seem lacking 'cause we end up forgetting we're in prison,
but there's always someone to remind us we're really here."
The lead character was surprised at the conditions as well, telling her daughter (with a pay phone inside the unit/apartment yet!) that it was nothing like the prisons seen on TV.

What's also surprising is the amount of interaction between the prisoners and the guards.  The general consensus is that guards are supposed to keep the prisoners in line and under control (as outlined in the Stanford Prison Experiment), but there's a certain amount of camaraderie and companionship that borders on respect.  If there are any valid complaints, they'll be given consideration, and there's guidelines to help make the transition run smoothly.  Not that it's all smooth sailing there.  Guards who are more accustomed in men's prisons who are transferred to women's prisons (due to work shortages) aren't used to the amount of interaction involved, and may be more comfortable keeping the prisoner / guard hierarchy separate.

Unité 9 follows some of the same themes as Orange, such as electing an Inmate-Committee President, and holding a concert, but the way they build up and prepare for those events changes on an episodic basis. Events take their time in playing out, and scenes will often shift to show other developments happening elsewhere at the same time.  It's very much of a slow burn.  Yet despite juggling multiple simultaneous plots simultaneously, there's never any confusion as to what's going on, despite the lack of expositionary dialogue.

And then there's the warden... oh boy, the warden.  Normand Despins borders somewhere between domineering and consolidating, being firm but fair.  He always says he has no time for complaints, yet always manages to listen.  (Whether they come from the guards, chaplain, parole officer, or the prisoners themselves)  As long as they make their argument compelling, he's willing to hear them out.  He'll support some recommendations while tearing down others for renovation and upheaval.  He'll consider the best available choices, but prefers to toe the bottom line.  He wavers between being an Obstructive Bureaucrat and a Reasonable Authority Figure.  It's just Marie's bad luck that he's implementing his Zero-Tolerance policy from experience in Men's prisons (due to complaints that Lietteville is too lenient) the same day she's being arraigned.

Another high selling point is the amount of natural dialogue and varied facial expressions among the women, giving a kalediscope range of emotions between the cast.  Very often in American shows, there's a high amount of philosophizing and speechifying in dialogue to make a point.  In Unité 9, things are shown factually and in a naturalistic roundabout way, showing you the events as they occur, and having no agenda present.  The fact that it's written by a team of three women also helps keep the relationships believable at a relatable and identifiable level, rather than showing a failed and broken prison system, filled with hierarchies and power struggles.  In fact, Unité 9 is closer to the book version of Orange is the New Black than the show, where Piper managed to make friends in prison and keep her fiancé.

In Orange is the New Black, every episode ends with a flash of orange before fading... to black.  Whereas with Unité 9, every episode ends, not with a cliffhanger, but the desire to see what happens next.  The next episode opening continues from where the last episode left off, and the brief snippet before the title credits (lasting just under a minute) gives what would normally count as the cliffhanger.

I am interested in seeing EVERYONE'S progress, and don't feel disheartened if I don't see someone for a long time, because I find pretty much everything that happens to be immensely immersing.  From the brief snippets of the prisoner's contact with life outside to the guard's office politics.  And the multiple meetings - meetings with staff to discuss various prisoners' behavior and potential improvements, to inmates meetings with psychologists, parole officers, and priests.  Not to mention that the prisoners can get shuffled around without a moment's warning, and their reactions to being locked up in Maximum or Solitary is different for each personality.  No two encounters are exactly alike.

In fact, Unité 9's only complaint could be the low number of racial diversity, but that's also an example of Truth in Television, since the prison it represents also has a 90% white prisoner rate.  An online discussion of the show delved into some interesting facts:

IRL there probably wouldn't be many native/metis women in that specific penitentiary - years ago, Corrections Canada set up healing lodges for native women to cater specifically to their needs. They are still incarcerated, but there is an emphasis on using First Nations culture and practices to help in rehabilitation"  It seems like that wouldn't be enough beds to mean that there are no Aboriginal women in other institutions though, right? Like, considering the proportions.
Update: I found a report from 2005 with the ethnic breakdown of women offenders in federal institutions in Canada, this is so interesting - the federal women's institution in Quebec (Joliette) only has 2.7% (2 people) of its population as Aboriginal women, where the other institutions are all much higher - the lowest is 11% for GVI (Ontario), 17.5% for the Atlantic and 34% for the Pacific region, and they just go up from there for the Edmonton institution and the ones in the Prairies (one federal, one psychiatric, one healing lodge). Wow.
So, yeah! Having a prison show elsewhere in Canada without Aboriginal women would be a lapse of varying severity depending on where you are - but for Joliette (where 90% of inmates are caucasian, whoa) this does make sense.
P.S. In 2005 there were ZERO Black women in the federal psychiatric institution, the Edmonton Institution for Women, and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women (and the healing lodge). So basically no Black women in federal custody West of Ontario. Wow. This has been a very intriguing report.
There have been plans for an English remake, which would be cast in Kingston (Ontario) rather than Quebec, which has a higher POC rate, and different crime rate.  The only other French-Quebec show to be adapted to English was the cop show 19-2 (No relation to Car 54 Where are You?) which focuses more on settling domestic disputes than solving mysteries every week.  Though the second season (in both languages) opens up with a strong contendor with police procedure and post-traumatic stress during a school shooting, which was inspired by actual cops affected by the Dawson College shooting.  So far, there's been a creative difference of interest in the production, which wanted to cut the number of episodes from 24 to 12, which would drastically cut into the tension and buildup.

Only the first two episodes are available online via Vimeo, and it's doubtful how long they'll stay there.  There used to be a Youtube account that had English subtitles, but the user was later banned, and there aren't any available downloads that aren't related to The Unit, the show about Super-Secret operators.  Your best bet is to rent or order the DVD series with its (high quality) subtitles intact, or start to learn Québecois French, knowing that religious sayings such as sacrament, câlice and tabarnak are swear words.  Despite its length, watching the later episodes of Unité 9 don't feel like a chore, and viewers are actively anticipating the outcome of the 3rd Season's finale resuming next month... but I'll refrain from revealing any spoilers.
A page from Peter Bagge's Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
The only other worthy Women's Prison show worth watching I'm aware of is Wentworth, but I haven't seen any of it to judge it worthy, though from general descriptions, it sounds close enough to Unité 9.  Any show about Women's prisons that makes lesbianism the least interesting aspect earns high marks in my book.

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