She has a place in Gardiner, a bed-and-breakfast with sprawling grounds but a cozy feel. She’s got a classic GMC truck in her tidy garage and a Harley for good measure. She championed equal rights for female prison guards in New York State, wrestled with the system and won. She’s an advisor for a soon-to-be Emmy-nominated series. Her name is Bernetta Calderone, and she’s busy.
To begin at the end, Calderone is an advisor for the hit Netflix program Orange Is the New Black. The show follows the story of an upper-middle-class woman and her 15-month stint in prison for a long-past misdeed (transporting a suitcase full of drug money for an international drug smuggler, her former lover). It’s kind of a big deal: The series, in which “Every sentence is a story,” is bound to be an award winner, and its cast has drawn considerable acclaim. Calderone lucked into the gig.
“Jason Graham, who is an assistant director of Orange Is the New Black, had been coming to my B&B [Bernetta’s Place] for a long time. One time he said, ‘We’re looking for a technical advisor on the show.’”
Interested in hiring Calderone as an advisor, Graham told her to call production manager David Price and send a résumé. Calderone hadn’t dealt with résumés in a while. “I said, ‘I’ve been retired since 2007 and I run a bed-and-breakfast. What résumé?’” After Calderone sent in her past work credentials, Price called Calderone and told her that she had the job. Calderone’s job is, primarily, to help ensure a sense of prison reality on the show.
The Orange Is the New Black position isn’t the first job into which Calderone has stumbled. After she took the Civil Service test with the goal of becoming a state trooper, she found out that, due to state-wide budget issues, she couldn’t find a place on the force. There were, however open spots for would-be corrections officers, and she grabbed one.
Calderone worked for 23 years at Downstate Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Fishkill, and wrapped up her career at Wallkill, close to home, for a brief stint in 2008. She supervised outside contractors working in the prison, and had to take shop classes that would help her identify the tools they worked with on site. That interested her, and she took up woodworking as a pastime.
A woman of boundless energy, Calderone loved working with her hands and decided to take odd jobs as a carpenter after work and to help maintain the grounds of another area bed-and-breakfast. She would eventually put her carpentry experience to use in assembling Bernetta’s Place, her Calderone Drive bed-and-breakfast opened in 2008. “This place used to be half the size,” she said. “I did most of the work here myself.”
According to Calderone, being a corrections officer at a maximum-security state penitentiary was the best job that she could have asked for: really fun stuff. She found humor in many things at the prison, and tried her damnedest to break the ice with the prisoners. Many of them weren’t the most hardened criminals in the world, she said; just scared young men thrown into an environment that would be vicious and hostile from the day that they got there until the day that they left.
“I always tried to have a good time, tried to make the new guys laugh,” said Calderone. “Some of these guys are scared. I wasn’t there to beat them down; I was there to do the job and take some of the intensity off.”
It wasn’t all good humor for Calderone. She filed suit against the New York prison system in 1999 for sexual discrimination. She was denied a prisoner transportation job at the Downstate facility. The job had 18 openings, but only two of them were open to females; Calderone filed for the third position, and in all other worlds she would have had the job in the bag, considering that of all applicants she was the most senior and had the most training. She was, however, denied the job. She won that sex discrimination suit.
Calderone had worked as an instructor, teaching other officers about sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior and cultural diversity. When the state prison system told her that she simply could not fill certain positions because she was a female, she remembered something that had been hammered into her at the academy: “They told me that I was an officer first and a woman second. If you’re telling me now that I’m a woman first and an officer second, there are going to be some changes.”
She then filed against the prison system for equal rights for male and female officers. By the time Calderone had left the business in 2007, she had spearheaded several important changes for female officers.
Corrections life is behind Calderone now, but as she takes care of Bernetta’s Place and helps the crew on Orange Is the New Black she looks back on her career as an officer with true fondness. “For most of my career, I laughed,” she said.
For information on Orange Is the New Black, go to https://movies.netflix.com. For information on Bernetta’s Place, call (845) 464-5106 or go to www.bernettasplace.com.