SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the final season of “Orange is the New Black,” streaming now on Netflix.
For six seasons “Orange is the New Black” acclimated viewers to life inside a detention center. First it was the minimum security fictional Litchfield Correctional Institution, then it was a maximum security prison. But in its seventh and final season, the Netflix drama introduced an ICE facility in which longtime characters such as Blanca (Laura Gomez) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) found themselves newly imprisoned.
“You felt they were in survival mode more than people that are in Litchfield,” executive producer Tara Herrmann tells Variety. “These detainees have fewer rights and fewer social services than the inmates. There was absolutely zero personal belongings or any comfort factor for the detainees, and there is a lack of information. The main thing that is being broadcast is that they’re being held there by the United States of America, which is just disturbing and we wanted to say this doesn’t represent all of us.”
Blanca ended up flagged for immigration after giving her statement about the prison riot. While she originally thought she was getting out, she ended up just incarcerated in a new way. This journey was one Herrmann says the writers and producers originally “toyed with” for the sixth season because they were writing those episodes as ICE raids were starting to dominate the news, but because they “were already going to be introducing the audience to the new world of max and the whole onslaught of new characters” then, they decided to wait.
Herrmann admits there was some hesitation of telling the story in what ultimately became the final season because they wanted to make sure they still had room to “let the stories breathe,” even while introducing something new. “We added the storyline where the inmates go and work in the detention center so our storylines could continue simultaneously,” she explains.
This allowed for an emotional reunion between Maritza and Flaca (Jackie Cruz). Maritza had gotten out of jail, but after she got caught up in a raid at a club without her ID, she ended up in the same center as Blanca.
Tasked with designing and leading a team to build this new facility on the Kaufman Astoria Studios stages was Malchus Janocko, the show’s production designer. Having been with the show since the fourth season, Janocko was accustomed to having to construct a realistic, confined space in a short amount of time (He was previously responsible for the maximum security sets introduced in the sixth season, for example). In this case, he shares he found out “a couple of weeks after the end of Season 6 they wanted to build it instead of find it.” He was able to secure another stage space, turned around the design in “two to three weeks,” and then started building, carrying some thematic principles of design over from the prison set.
“With the privatization of all of these facilities in our show and in reality, they are obviously looking for the cheapest possible and fastest ways of dealing with things,” Janocko explains.
Although the construction techniques for the ICE detention center set were warehouse techniques not dissimilar to the prison sets, Janocko wanted to set the ICE facility apart visually. “We wanted to do an all metal construction,” he says. “It worked visually in reality the way they would have done it, which was just to throw up a steel shed for a warehouse in a couple of weeks. You lay a concrete pad, you put up the metal trusswork, and you put up a metal roof on it. We basically did that on our stage. We got a bunch of real materials — real metal — and we faked a bunch of metal with wood to make the outer structure.”
He also relied on “a lot of pre-fab pieces” and reinforced fiberglass, which is indestructible and “goes up really, really quickly; you just have to screw it into place.”
Other notable differences within the ICE detention center included that security was really not the issue that it was in Litchfield. In the latter, the inmates have been convicted of crimes, some of which were violent, and guards roam the halls with weapons while cells and doors lock. In the ICE facility, regular people are plucked off the streets and shoved into close quarters, but the security concerns are “more about the outer fences,” Janocko notes. Additionally, there are issues with severe over-crowding, which he chose to represent by stacking the space with three-layer bunk beds.
“It’s actually a very large room,” Janocko says of the ICE detention center set, which he considers comparable in size to the prison set proper, “but when you fill it with detainees or incarcerees, it really feels cramped.”
In order to properly represent not only the visuals but the vibe of such places, “Orange is the New Black” sent its writers to a real-life facility in Adelanto, Calif., while the art director and set director visited a facility closer to production in New Jersey. While they weren’t allowed to take pictures there, Janocko reports, they received walk-throughs, and the images lingered in their minds long after they left.
“Each of the writers, as they came to New York, would say, ‘This is amazing — in the worst possible way.’ You’re proud to tell the story of these people, but it’s kind of amazingly awful,” he says. “That’s not a pretty set, but it’s a well-built, important set.”
“Sadly, you could do a whole series on an ICE facility, like we did prison,” Herrmann says. “We had speakers come in who had been in detention centers and they expressed how wherein a prison system you kind of go into tribes and they can start fighting amongst themselves, this is very much ‘us against them.’ It didn’t matter where you were from, they were all on the same side — in this together — which was very different from our research on prison.”
This inspired the storyline in which Blanca befriends another detainee and the two help each other to study the law to build cases for themselves to get released. In the end, it worked for Blanca, but she still ended up leaving America — so she could be with her boyfriend, who had also gotten detained by immigration after visiting her at the center. Maritza, on the other hand, who had grown up thinking she was born in America, learned her mother had in fact brought her into the country illegally, and she was deported.
“This is really still happening, and we wanted to leave the audience with the notion that there’s still work to be done and there aren’t that many happy endings in that world yet,” Herrmann says.