How This 'Orange Is The New Black' Star Is Helping Real Prison Inmates

June 24th 2015

Laura Donovan

On hit Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," actress Kate Mulgrew plays an inmate who looks out for many people.

She doles out romantic advice to corrections officer Sam Healy, tells main character Piper Chapman to stop being so fake, and treats troubled, drug-addicted prisoner Nicky like a daughter. Mulgrew loves to help others in real life as well. The actress is an alumnus and board member of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which is in its second year of hosting acting courses for New York's Rikers Island inmates.

"It's a program of hope," Mulgrew told AM New York. "It's very true, at least in my experience in life, that the young people who are often thwarted by their circumstances are often liberated by their own imagination. They have only to discover that. So often these kids do not understand that their creative energy is a tool they can use to their creative advantage."

Coincidentally, "Orange is the New Black" season three features a new, well-attended improv course at the fictional Litchfield Prison.

Mulgrew credits the Stella Adler Studio for giving her the acting chops necessary to play a prisoner on the show and hopes the program can inspire inmates as well.

Yesenia Vega, a former inmate at Rikers, told AM New York that the courses had a major positive impact on her life and enabled her to feel like she was out of prison.

"[They were] pretty much the best experience me myself could have gotten out of Rikers Island," she said. "You literally left -- mentally, emotionally, you left Rikers Island. It brought a lot of the girls together, people you wouldn't normally speak to in passing. The atmosphere [at Rikers] is okay, keep your head down, walk straight, speak to no one, you know, you would just never think that you meet amazing people in jail ... It gave me a different confidence of myself and gave me a better sense of worth for myself."

Stella Adler Studio artistic director Tom Oppenheim said the inmates also come alive on stage during class performances.

"The women had worked so hard and believed so much in their work that they commanded the audience, they commanded all of us, they became our teachers." he said.

3 Reasons Why America is Addicted to Prison

3 Reasons Why America is Addicted to Prison

Posted by ATTN: on Sunday, May 24, 2015


Earlier this month, ATTN: wrote about Norway's Halden Prison, which looks more like a "university, hospital, [or] school," according to facility manager Are Hoidal. At five years old, Halden spends roughly triple the amount on its average prisoner (close to $90,000) than the U.S. system spends, and inmates receive private rooms with a TV, shower, fridge, and wood furniture. As we previously pointed out, Halden's approach appears to be effective, as Norway has a 20 percent recidivism rate, which is among the lowest in the world, according to a March 2014 report from Rhode Island's Salve Regina University.

Karin Dwyer-Loken, an American who teaches English and history at the prison, told NPR Halden's culture allows for inmates and staffers to eat meals together and play games at the gym.

"Anybody can learn anything," she said. "Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance ... Their punishment is being locked up. Their punishment is not to be treated badly while they're locked up."