Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Nick Sandow, Joe Caputo from Orange Is the New Black, on Exposing the Injustices of the U.S. Prison System


I attend a lot of events and conferences around the world that act as gathering hubs for very interesting people. Needless to say, I'm meeting a lot of them naturally; so it came as a surprise that I should meet Nick Sandow in the most unexpected place- my children's school !

Nick has never been one to let his circumstances hold him back. He grew up in a tough Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, but you would never guess it from his upbeat attitude and kind personality. He is an accomplished actor, producer and director, among many other talents that he's yet to share with me.

He is also observant and naturally drawn to shedding light on the problems in society silenced for too long. His role as Joe Caputo in Orange Is the New Black has created dialogue around the controversial U.S. prison system, especially the warden/prisoner relationship that's important to study in moving forward with effective solutions to many of the problems within the hierarchy. Thank you for being a voice for the voiceless, Nick !

Nick, you're well-known for playing Joe Caputo, the warden at Litchfield Penitentiary in Orange Is the New Black. Do you feel the show accurately depicted some of the systematic problems that occur in the U.S. prison system?

Definitely. I think most importantly, the show addresses its effect on the human beings inside the system. A system where they are considered a number and a dollar sign.

The show has also been successful in paving the way for discussions on the criminal justice system's racial bias. How has the show explored the narrative that the color of your skin will dictate the treatment you receive?

We have over 2 million people locked behind bars. 60 percent of them are people of color. I think the show is successful because it never turns away from the realities of incarceration. Yes, it is entertainment and it makes people laugh, but the hardship is always there. I think that it's that combination of humor and a commitment to building real characters that has reached people and opened up some of these bigger questions about the prison industrial complex. Jenji has said that she used Piper Kerman's character- a privileged white woman- as a trojan horse, a way into a much larger and diverse population of characters.

In the show, your character has a tough side but genuinely seems to care for the inmates. Are there any overlaps between his personality and your own?

It's very hard for me to separate Caputo from myself. I think our writers are great at seeing and feeling an essence in the cast that's deeper than an actor can realize about himself. I sometimes feel like they see our vulnerabilities and consistently rip off the scab. I may be wrong about this and maybe that of process ripping off of the scab is just part of how I go about it. It's hard to be objective about any of this. The simple answer is: yes their are many uncomfortable overlaps.

You grew up in New York during a time of high crime. Although the city has become a much safer place, some still argue that crime has only been pushed outwards, into neighborhoods that serve as hubs for criminal activity today. What was your own personal experience growing up and seeing this first-hand?

Ahh... New York. My favorite subject and one of the great loves of my life. Yes, I have seen many changes in NYC. Sometimes it's hard to fathom it is the same city. But then again I am not the same same and you can go around barking nostalgic or embrace it. Yes, New York is very hard on its poor and disappearing middle-class. I'm from the Bronx and my neighborhood is very much the same as when I grew up. People struggling to get by and make a better life for their kids. This is a complex subject for me because I am now a Brooklyn gentrifier. I have paid incredible amounts of money for real-estate and the postman who lived in my house before has moved out to New Jersey or Staten Island. I am not sure what that makes me? Part of the problem? Personally, it's just confusing.

Is there a feasible solution to eliminating crime, besides incarceration?

Sure, I have to believe there is. There is a 69 percent recidivism rate. That's just astounding to me. First and foremost, we have to take corporations out of the prison system. Why would a corporation work to heal people, if it only makes money on their hardship? We have to look at the reasons people are being arrested and start there. People say our system is broken and I feel this kind of thinking will never fix anything. The system is not broken it is doing exactly what it is designed to do and that it to put people of color and poor people behind bars. I personally believe our current system was built as an extension of slavery. We have more people of color behind bars than at the height of slavery. I am currently working on a documentary series Exec. Produced by Jay Z and the Weinstein company that will air in February on Spike. It is called "Time: The Kalief Browder Story," and it takes us through the much too short life of Kalief Browder and his harrowing journey through the criminal justice system.

You recently participated in American Women's video with several other stars, calling on policymakers to implement laws guaranteeing paid family leave. Why is this issue so important to you?

Paid Family leave just makes sense period. My family is my highest life priority and anything we could do to help young families stay together and nurture their children- I'm all for it.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned as an actor?

My greatest lesson as an actor, hmmm...... acting taught me how to learn. I didn't really know how to learn. I never made it as a student. Acting literally has taught me everything I know about the world and one of the biggest lessons was a commitment to never judge my character. That commitment forced me to look deeper into why people do the things they do and I think it's rubbed off on the rest of my life a bit. Don't get me wrong- I could be a total asshole sometimes but for the most part the discipline of non judgement in acting has helped me on the street.

Finally, do you think that by doing good, you're more successful?

I honestly don't ever feel like I'm doing much good, but I'm trying. How that translates to success, I have no idea.