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Could Orange is the New Black Hurt the Image of Social Workers?

Michael Harney portrays prison social worker Sam Healy and Taylor Schilling is inmate Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Michael Harney portrays prison social worker Sam Healy and Taylor Schilling is inmate Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Netflix’s critically acclaimed prison drama “Orange is the New Black” takes on societal issues that many social workers dedicate their lives to addressing – inequities in the justice system, racism, mental illness and equal treatment of people in the LGBT community.

That is why some social workers are concerned an unethical prison social worker is featured prominently in the series. Some social workers are concerned that portrayal could help perpetuate negative stereotypes of the profession.

The social worker Sam Healy, MSW, who is portrayed by veteran character actor Michael Harney, starts out gruff but apparently caring. However, his character grows increasingly dark as the 13-episode first season progresses.

Healy is blatantly homophobic, is manipulative and in the season finale is an accomplice in the attempted murder of the main character Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling).

“It started out great then the real prejudice began to show,” one social worker wrote on SocialWorkersSpeak.org’s Facebook page. “I was saddened that he was portrayed in this manner.”

Stacey Peyer, LCSW, a full-time field faculty member at the California State Long Beach School of Social Work since 1994, watched the full season of “Orange is the New Black,” which is only available to Netflix subscribers. She also assembled a group of colleagues at the university to watch clips of the show.

Q: How should social workers address the social work role in “Orange is the New Black”? Should we ignore the role, hoping the public will realize Healy does not represent the overwhelming majority of social workers. Should we write to show producers to protest the role? Try to advise the show?  Or use it as a catalyst for an educational dialog with the public on social work ethics and conduct? Leave your viewpoints in the comment field below.

Peyer says there are unscrupulous social workers such as Healy in real life, but they are rare.

“There are sick, unethical and burnt out people in every profession and social workers are not immune,” Peyer said.  “There are bad teachers, there are bad cops, there are bad everything. They are not the norm.”

Social worker Stacey Peyer.

Social worker Stacey Peyer.

Peyer said she realizes there is a risk that some “Orange is the New Black” viewers will judge all social workers based on Healy’s character, thinking he is the rule rather than the exception. But on the other hand she said viewers may realize the majority of social workers are not like Healy.

And besides, many of the characters on the program are flawed, Peyer noted.

The main character Piper Chapman is a middle class New York City resident who ends up going to prison when her youthful jaunt as an international drug runner catches up with her. And a prison guard smuggles in drugs and rapes inmates.

“Healy is so inappropriate that some people may think that the character’s behavior is so absurd that no real social worker would act that way,” said Peyer, who earned a master’s degree in social worker from the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

In fact, Peyer said she knows of an educator who is using Healy as an example of how not to practice social work.

Ultimately, Peyer said it is important that Healy at some point is held accountable for his misdeeds. Netflix is now producing a second season, which should be available on Netflix in 2014.

“Of course it is my hope that when Season Two opens Healy and the prison guard are kicked to the curb,” Peyer  said.

Social workers help people from all walks of life overcome life’s challenges. To learn more visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” website.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Way to go Stacey! I still love the show though. :)

  2. I do not think anyone with a brain would see Social Workers in that light at all. It is full entertainment and Social Workers are the hardest working ethical self-aware people I know.

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