[Spoiler Alert: spoilers for Orange Is the New Black Season 4.]
Quick Answer: While the guards at Litchfield have never treated the inmates particularly well, the new C.O.s in Season 4 prove to be especially sadistic. This is due to the inherently imbalanced power dynamic between the inmates and the C.O.s. Orange Is the New Black shows how the absolute power that the guards have eventually corrupts them.
The inmates of Orange Is the New Black’s (2013 - ) Litchfield Penitentiary have always had a fraught relationship with the guards. In past seasons, correctional officers (C.O.s) have mistreated inmates in a number of ways. For the first two seasons C.O. Mendez, better known as Pornstache, is the posterchild for abusive guards. He forces Red to smuggle in drugs, makes Tricia accept the bag of oxycontin that she ends up using to overdose, frames Tricia’s OD to make it look like she hanged herself, and even pees into the vat of gravy that Red is cooking for Thanksgiving dinner.
Pablo Schreiber as "C.O. Mendez" on Orange Is the New Black (2013 - )
But the new guards in Season 4 make Pornstache look like Employee of the Month by comparison. In a season that is perpetually occupied with power dynamics, the most explicit dynamic is the one between the inmates and the C.O.s. Whereas the majority of the old C.O.s were incompetent and simply did not care about the inmates, many of the new ones are actively sadistic. As the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The same can almost be said of the inmates. In the Season 4 premiere, one of the new inmates asks Flaca, “Who’s running the game in here,” who’s “la jefa?” Much to the new inmate’s surprise, Flaca points to Piper Chapman. Piper, who gained her power through her panty smuggling ring and through sending Stella to max, is paranoid about losing it. Throughout the season the audience sees Piper’s desperate grabs for power, and how the inmates turn on her as Ruiz’s star rises and her own falls. These power fluctuations are wrapped up in racial tensions, in-group vs. out-group mentality, intimidation, and even violence. But neither Piper nor Ruiz can have absolute power – after all, they are still inmates.
Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) on Orange Is the New Black
Dayanara sums it up best in Season 2 Episode 7. Dayanara Diaz and C.O. Bennett, who not only loved each other but who even got engaged, still had to face the irrevocable power imbalance between them. When they are fighting, Daya dares Bennett to give her a shot and he won’t. She argues that his refusal doesn’t matter: “But you could if you wanted to, right? Because you have a choice. You have the power. I’m an inmate – I have nothing.”
The power struggles that occur between the women of Litchfield, no matter how ugly they get, do not change the way that the inmates are perceived by the guards or by the law. If anything, the inmates with the most power are the ones who are involved in some sort of illegal activity – a panty smuggling ring for Chapman, a drug smuggling ring for Ruiz – and thus they are even more vulnerable to the guards. In Season 4, C.O. Humphrey (“Humps”) repeatedly taunts Martiza because he suspects that she is up to something with the van. And he’s right – she is using her position as van driver to smuggle contraband for Ruiz. Later, the twisted C.O. holds a gun to Martiza’s head and makes her eat a live mouse. The “kingpin” may not be as directly vulnerable as this, since she is not the one doing the dirty work, but she is the one with the farthest to fall.
C.O. Humphrey (Michael Torpey) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) on Orange Is the New Black
Not all of the new guards are as Hannibal Lecter-esque as Humps, but they are all a far cry from the old batch of C.O.s. Since most of the new C.O.s under Captain Piscatella are military veterans, they are probably more jaded to high-pressure environments than your average upstate-New Yorker who is just looking for a job. Furthermore, these new guards are operating as a group; they are constantly being reassured about the righteousness of their questionable actions, and there is nearly no individual accountability. When C.O. Stratman makes Blanca stand on a table as punishment for her defiance, one of the other C.O.s admits that the situation is a little “Abu Ghraib-y,” but they all still support him. “You made a tough call, now we all got your back,” Piscatella reassures him. “That’s how the brotherhood works.” This brotherhood is later seen in full-force when Caputo tries to suspend Humps for forcing two inmates to fight. Piscatella tells him that if Humps leaves, they all leave; so Humps stays. There’s strength in numbers.
Piscatella (Brad William Henkeon) Orange Is the New Black
This group mentality aside, the guards’ sadistic impulses are probably a direct result of their complete power over those who are powerless. It’s a classic set-up, straight out of the famous Stanford prison experiment. In 1971, a team of researchers led by Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned college boys to take on the role of either guard or prisoner. At the beginning of the experiment, all of the students were nearly statistically identical and mentally healthy. By the end, the “guards” were dehumanizing the “prisoners,” physically abusing them, and some were even subjecting them to psychological torture. Zimbardo had to call off the experiment after only 6 days.
The same kind of gruesome transformation happens with the guards in OITNB. C.O. Coates, aka Donuts, enters Litchfield as a snarky red velvet-lover who hits it off with Pennsatucky. But their relationship quickly sours. One moment they are feeding ducks together, and the next Coates is forcing Pennsatucky to fetch a piece of bread out of the mud with her mouth. He even rapes her, all the while saying how much he loves her. Later in the season when C.O. Bailey asks Coates if he thinks that the prison has changed him and whether he has ever been tempted, Coats shakes his head dismissively. But the audience knows the truth.
Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and C.O. Coates (James McMenamin) on Orange Is the New Black
Season 4 ends with what seems to be a complete upheaval of this power dynamic; the prisoners revolt and Dayanara has a gun up to C.O. Humphrey’s head. But this is really just a momentary blip in the status quo. Humps forced two inmates to fight, resulting in one being severely injured, and essentially got away with it; he tortured Maritza at gun point without anyone (save Flaca) finding out. Dayanara, on the other hand, could be in serious trouble for threatening C.O. Humphrey with a gun – his gun, which he illegally snuck into the prison – even if she never pulls the trigger.
It’s no wonder that Caputo, the Warden of Litchfield, urges Bailey to get out. “This place crushes anything good,” he tells Bailey. “Working here changes who you are.”
Read more on Orange Is the New Black: What choice will Dayanara make following the "Orange Is the New Black" Season 4 ending?