What federal prison taught me about Student Affairs

By: Lindsay Ritenbaugh

Unless you were living under a rock like me during the month of July, you may not have heard of the Netflix summer hit,Orange Is the New Black. My colleagues brought it up continuously over lunch and I was intrigued. I’ll be honest: watching a show about female inmates didn’t quite appeal to me as a student affairs professional. I finally gave in this weekend and completed Season 1 marathon style—thirteen episodes that have changed the way I view federal prison and left me yearning for more.

Without giving away any plot spoilers, here is a synopsis found via the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of New Hampshire: The dramedy portrays with nuance its diverse cast of characters—prisoners, lesbians of color, poor people, and even WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). And, most shockingly, a transgender woman of color—played by a transgender woman of color.
Parallels to student affairs are prevalent throughout each episode. Issues of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status, and privilege drive the storyline. Community living spaces and the conflicts that arise aren’t that unlike housing and residential life at many colleges and universities. The work-study programs and availability for GED education, although flawed and sometimes nonexistent, can provide co-curricular means for the inmates to continue learning while incarcerated.

Schlossberg’s transition theory (as cited in Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010), presents the 4 S’s of situation, self, supports, and strategies, which are integral during any major life change. Although Schlossberg intended this theory to be utilized to facilitate the transition into college by way of orientation and involvement, I see how these 4 S’s affected the new inmates whose way of living were immediately altered. The themes of marginality and mattering by Schlossberg (1989) can often be seen throughout the storyline of the series.

Further, the organizational leadership in the prison known as the WAC (Women’s Advisory Council) appealed to me in my work with student organizations and leadership. This elected group of inmate representatives reminded me much of housing area governments or student government associations. Unfortunately, the WAC in this series was corrupt and accomplished little—it did nothing more but pin the racially divided cliques of prison inmates against one another. WAC was also the prison’s way of giving the inmates a false sense of leadership. One character explained the real purpose of WAC saying, “It’s like when you are a kid, and your parent asks, ‘Do you want a shower before or after dinner?’ You are going to get wet either way. It just makes you think you have a choice.” In Student Affairs, when creating and evaluating representative councils, it is important that they offer real opportunities for leadership and aren’t merely impotent sounding boards.

At DePaul University, we practice Socially Responsible Leadership, which seeks to foster individual personal growth and communal interpersonal development:

Self-Understanding and Personal Integrity
Taking Seriously the Perspective of Others
Contributing to a Larger Community
Knowledge and Intellectual Competence
Striving for Excellence

Certainly there is no comparison to the oppressive conditions of a federal prison; however, if as we listen to the stories of Chapman, Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Red, Miss Claudette, and the other inmates, themes can mirror what we do as student affairs professionals. We may be dealing with students from troubled backgrounds facing difficult transitions, discrimination, marginalization, and uncertainty of future plans. Or, like the prison’s commanding officers, we might at times forget the humanity of the students we serve. Or, as we better learn to listen to one another’s stories, might we break free from the ways our tendency toward self-absorption so often imprisons our thoughts, actions, and lives?


Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. New Directors for Student Services, 1989(48), 5-15.

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