Alysia Reiner ’92 is well known for her role as the embezzling and combative assistant warden Natalie “Fig” Figueroa on Orange Is the New Black. Although Figueroa shows disdain for the female prisoners in the fictitious Litchfield federal penitentiary, Reiner was honored by the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), founded to help incarcerated women.
This year, Reiner received the WPA’s Sarah Powell Huntington Leadership Award for her dedication to the organization.
The WPA has several programs for women embroiled in the criminal justice system—from a halfway house for newly released prisoners to an alternatives to incarceration program that helps mothers serve their sentence in a homelike facility with their children. Reiner says her first volunteer effort with the WPA was filling hundreds of kids’ backpacks with donated school supplies. All of the children had mothers who were either currently or formerly incarcerated.
Since then, Reiner has volunteered her time and helped with several projects at the WPA—including fundraising efforts—and even gotten friends involved. For instance, she asked a friend who owns an organic bedding company if she could donate some of her stock to the halfway house. The result? Each newly released prisoner who stays there now gets new bedding that they can take with them when they find more permanent housing, Reiner says.
“I’m all about thinking outside the box,” she says, noting it’s a skill developed at her progressive high school and Vassar. “How can we get people together? How can we rally?”
Reiner says she found out about the WPA through Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman, who has been involved with the organization for several years. “I felt the need to do whatever I could to help,” Reiner says.
In a more recent project, Reiner helped design a locket with Suz Somersall, owner of the jewelry and accessories business KiraKira. All proceeds from locket sales go to the WPA. Reiner says that whenever she’s interviewed about her Orange Is the New Black role, she makes sure to mention the locket and the WPA, spurring others to get involved.
“People go to the website to see what it is, to see how they can help,” she says.
Her volunteer efforts on behalf of the WPA shouldn’t come as a surprise. For many years, she’s been involved with groups and causes—from cancer support and the environment to education and children’s health.
“I don’t know where I got it from, but one of the important things I teach my daughter is to be a global citizen,” Reiner says. She notes that whether it’s through philanthropy or her work as an actress, she’s always trying to start a “conversation.”
An example is a recent film project, No Letting Go, which tells the tale of a family coming to grips with the mental health problems of one adolescent son. Reiner, who stars in the film, says she has a young family member who was diagnosed with a mental health disorder and she knows about the stigma attached to it. The film, she says, will hopefully bring about more awareness.
“I love telling stories that other people are afraid to tell,” Reiner says.
Orange Is the New Black has certainly given Reiner a chance to tell a new story, with a character people love to hate. While Fig embezzles money from the prison to help fund her husband’s state senate campaign, Reiner’s character boasts about the legislation he’ll be able to enact to create prison reform. The irony and hypocrisy of the plan isn’t lost on Reiner.
“Even the worst people in the world thought they were making the world a better place,” she says.
--Photo courtesy of subject