Inmates within an dramatized ICE detention facility on bunk beds talking.
‘Orange Is the New Black’ set designer on recreating ICE

One of the first things that production designer Malchus Janocko noticed was the cheap materials. When he was working with his crew to design ICE detention facilities for the latest and final season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (OITNB), which came out July 26, he was a bit shocked at just how flimsy and inexpensive these places were. Put up a box in a week, a metal shed on a concrete pad, then add some reinforced fiberglass, plumbing, maybe air conditioning, and you have a facility.

“The permanent prisons are expensive, they’re meant to last forever and are indestructible,” Janocko says. “These ICE facilities, you can put them up in a couple of days. It’s a whole new experience for how we build and design scenery.”

The climax of Netflix’s critically acclaimed prison drama, which includes multiple storylines that center around immigration enforcement and detention centers, was in one way a departure for the show. For many seasons, the show has been set in the fictional Litchfield correctional facility, then briefly a maximum security prison. Janocko, who began working for the show in Season 4, says that accuracy has always been a hallmark of the series. The maximum security cell from Season 6, known in the show as an Administrative Segregation Unit, was built after extensive facility tours and interviews with guards and staff.

“We wanted to hit this situation head on, the overcrowding, the reality of the situation, and make it personal so people can feel the universality of the prison system.”
Courtesy Netflix

The ripped-from-the-headlines ICE plot of the new season—agents raid a club and detain Maritza, while a number of new characters in detention experience different facets of the immigration system—featured similar amounts of research and interviews.

“After touring ICE facilities in New Jersey, some of our staff were shaken,” says Janocko. “The reality of the situation, not having a lawyer, the situation with access to phones, the food, it’s even less human than our regular prison system.”

The seeds for the immigration storyline were set during the finale of Season 6, so staff had months of time to research and work on sets before filming commenced (the last season was shot between last July 2018 and February 2019). Carolina Paiz, one of the show’s writers, had friends working on immigrant legal aid at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, who were able to connect the writing staff with lawyers and detainees to interview. Two members of the design crew also toured a site in New Jersey. In addition, actress Diane Guerrero, who plays Maritza, had personal experience with immigration and deportation; when she was 14 and living in the U.S, she came home to find her parents had been picked up by immigration agents.

These first-person accounts and observations became critical to the plot, including scenes where migrants were detained in former big box stores filled with fenced in pens, or showing children as young as 4 and 5 defending themselves in court. The crew built the mock facility sets on a sound stage, mimicking the structure they researched and toured.

“I’m proud to be part of this storytelling,” says Janocko. ”You can read it in the paper, but to see it dramatized, it makes it more real and relatable to people.”

Accuracy was of paramount importance for such a charged and contemporary setting, says Janocko. But he did dial a few things down. During tours of the facilities, mostly run by private corporations, he said crew members saw some “really heavy propaganda posters” with imagery of Donald Trump. They deliberately avoided including those images, since it didn’t quite fit with the timeframe of the show.

There has been some criticism of recent seasons, Janocko says, that the storylines have gotten too far afield from the show’s original premise. But he felt that the push by creator Jenji Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann to ground the final season in awareness of contemporary issues was very important, and underscored the overall themes of the show.

“We wanted to hit this situation head on, the overcrowding, the reality of the situation, and make it personal so people can feel the universality of the prison system,” he says. “It plays out really well. I don’t think we held back in any fashion.”

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