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Orange Is the New Black's Lea DeLaria on Prison Life and Quarantine

Orange Is the New Black's Lea DeLaria on Prison Life and Quarantine


While holed up in her Brooklyn apartment, the iconic comedian reflects on her time at the Litchfield Correctional Facility.

Confinement, quarantine, isolation, rationing, bartering, crowded rooms, solitary, treasured toilet paper, crew cuts or unkempt hair, sweats as uniform, taco Tuesday, burger Thursday, fish Friday, line to the bathroom, mind-games, boot-legged alcohol.

It suddenly occurred to me that all of this that we're experiencing sounds like multiple seasons of Orange is the New Black. Could it be that in this era, social distancing is the new black?

Our sentences vary from state to state. Some have much stricter measures, while others are a bit laxer. A collection of 50+ miniature prisons, each with their own rules, protocols, wardens, inmates and escapees.

Those who are unleashing are suddenly treated as outliers, avengers, and "not cool." Those that stay at home, keep six feet away, and wear masks as fashion statements are the trend-setters.

And the warden of this entire system is crazier than the inmates, preaching propaganda, pitting systems against systems, prisoners against prisoners, and ignoring the trendsetters by balking at staying six feet away and wearing something over his infected mouth. Fed up with the cries of panic, confusion, unrest, the warden seeks to quell the disarray with bright, sleep depriving ultra-violet lights, and dispensing doses of poisonous Lysol and Clorox.

Since the upside-down world we're living in seems to mimic episodes of the blockbuster and award-winning Netflix prison drama, I thought it only appropriate to turn to actor, comedian and singer Lea DeLaria, who marvelously played Carrie "Big Boo" Black, the butch, confident, and sarcastic inmate, who often showed a thoughtful side.

I spoke to DeLaria while she is hunkered down alone at her home in Brooklyn, and at times, I felt like the straight man serving up straight-forward questions about social distancing.

First, I asked her if there were any similarities or differences between home confinement and living in a prison, "Well, it's much easier for me to masturbate alone at home," replied the come as you may DeLaria.

However, being isolated at home alone is hands down not all it's cracked up to be for DeLaria. "I'm a people person, so this has been hard not being able to socialize. I have some friends who have seemed to rehearse all their lives for being quarantined during a pandemic, but not me."

DeLaria is resorting to creative ways to keep herself entertained. "Last night, I played poker with my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards," she cracked. When I asked her, "who won," she said that George, the fatter one, cleaned up.

And speaking of cleaning up, there was perhaps not a more valuable commodity than toilet paper at the Litchfield prison, and we all now know what it's like to hoard those rolls. The other product that had value within Litchfield was tampons. When I asked DeLaria if she had to choose between toilet paper or tampons, what would it be?

"I'm 62 so toilet paper; however, if you had asked me only a few years ago, that would have been a tough call. I had my period until I was 58 which proves I'm forever young."

So, what about those people, who like some of the inmates, have had a hard time keeping those precious rolls in stock? "They should try and do what some of those in other countries do, use warm water on their left hands."

Outside of the essentials, I asked DeLaria, given her fictitious OITNB sentence, if she had any advice on how to cope with seeing the same people, day in and day out, 24/7. "I'm alone now, so I can't offer much advice," she contemplated. "But I do know that the cast of Orange was really like a family, and we knew that during shooting the series, that the ensemble was all in it together. So, I think that's the message that we need to remember for what's going on right now."

Indeed, the cast won several awards as an ensemble, and their characters did face some tough times, that as the expression goes, and pardon the pun, put their panties in a twist - literally. The inmates came together to sell - and make - used panties, which caused a sensation in the real world while the episodes ran. I asked DeLaria how important it was to have a hobby, or maybe create your own business, during this crisis?

"I'd probably be making Latex gloves right now if I could," she jested. "But I can tell you that my house is completely organized. I'm also doing a lot of Zoom, FaceTime calls, and watching some great TV including Shitt's Creek, The Politican, and Unorthodox." She's also part way through season three of Ozark, and since I binged watched over the weekend, we had to stop the conversation, so I didn't provide any spoilers.

Like most of us, the warden-in-chief is spoiling the COVID-19 pandemic further for DeLaria with his daily doses of disaster declarations and drumming up dangerous dispensing of would-be drugs. I asked DeLaria if Trump was the warden on OITNB, what would have happened? "Remember when we had the riot in season five," she recalled. "Well, if Trump was the warden, that riot would have taken place in season one!"

For some of us, the quarantine and isolation regulations will be softening soon or within the coming weeks and months. So, how does one prepare to make the transition from confinement to freedom? "It will be interesting because I think everyone will need to do a lot of shaving and trimming since we've all probably let ourselves go," DeLaria predicted.

When the day comes that she gets released from her home-as-prison, I asked the former television inmate, what she would do when finally free? "The first thing I'll do is go to the Cubby Hole and pick up two girls," DeLaria said with a laugh.

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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