Feminism and women in prison is one of the earliest movements in social history. Primarily efforts by feminists in the 1920’s, then again in the 1940’s were made to better the condition of prisons that stored the girls off the streets, homeless and poor, often abused with no family or kin. Currently, the reality of women in prison and the cost to women and our world has recently been evoked because of a netflix series by Piper Kerman Orange is the New Black that contributes to a new awareness about prison for women today.
Orange is the New Black, but really a puddle jump.
KPFA of Berkeley interviewed author Piper Kerman, of Orange is the New Black and she reported a startling figure. Kerman said that women in prison, state and federal, has been an increase of “800%” since her incarceration. She also emphasized that the majority were non white, thus orange in her title is not a pun so much as it is a reference to the fact that more women of color are in prison than white and the increase of women in prison is beyond alarming.
Fact checks of prison data reveals that 1 million women have gone through the criminal justice system since 1985, with 200,000 confined in state or local jails representing 7% of the prison population. The rate of incarceration of women has doubled since 1985 with 30% black women, 16% Hispanic. In 2005, a black women was three times as likely as white to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women are 69% more likely to be incarcerated as white. 40% of the criminal justice cases of conviction were related to illegal drugs with 80% of women receiving more than a year in jail, as reported by Kerman quoted in her KPFA interview 5/5/14.
What does this represent for the nation? It reflects the fact that women may not have the funds for lawyers, and like the male non white convicted there is a lack of education and treatment for drug addiction for these women. It seems to represent also that there is growing numbers statistically proportional to male incarceration. Both males and females of color are more likely to be in jail. Case after case reveals that non whites receive more severe sentences, are consistently found guilty to crimes they did not commit. Sadly, we hear this, read this on line, in the newspaper, on cable, etc. It is not news.
Even so, the astonishing increase of women in prison has not been information well represented. For Piper Kerman, her book providing a cast of characters as she does, her goal is to increase knowledge and compassion of the state of women who are imprisoned. The popular Netflix show based on her book and her experiences in jail for Kerman has put Netflix in strong competition with HBO and Showtime for an audience that was very receptive and enthusiastic about the series. A social responsibility seems to be at the base of Kerman’s altruistic and genuine interest in making public her experiences in prison. “Without the contact and support you can gain from the other inmates, prison is impossible.” It is hard. It can take your life away is her message. Who are the women? The girls who didn’t finish schools, from abusive relationships as children and as adults, with no particular training or future. In prison, Kerman recalls, she knew she had a life outside and the Ivy League school and status she had before has been hers to regain. The book and the network series have us know: for many women, prison is a puddle jump away. The decisions made by young girls with no back up and no particular place in the world.
Kerman points out the destructive elements of incarceration on families who are left behind, children, parents, siblings-all a cost rarely measured. Prison does not rehabilitate, prison does not educate or provide any future hope, but basically keeps the person confined and constrained to conditions that do not allow progression to a productive life outside. It is alarming that women have increased in the numbers they have in state and federal jails. It is a cost we feel in our lack of public funding for schools, trainings or childcare that could support young women trying to make it. Profoundly, Kerman emphasizes that Women in prison suffer HIV and Hepatitis C in large proportion, with few if any true health standards around their care. Much of the pelvic inflammation and chlamydia symptoms have no symptoms, so go untreated.
Orange is the New Black makes known facts that illustrate that treatment, psychological and medical are what is needed in the treatment of incarcerated women. Given the reported cost of $104,000 per inmate in prison, a much better use of the taxpayers’ dollar would be to treat and educate women to return to society. Piper Kerman, like most of the women she met in prison, did something against the law not foreseeing the possibility of the consequences that would follow years later. She has returned and is contributing with her knowledge of women in prison.
Where is feminism in this conversation? Piper is a feminist for sure, and knows her own value, has lived through her mistakes and is looking to have the conditions and problems she saw women facing in prison be seen, acknowledged and changed. She stresses the lack of humanity in how these women are deal with in prison,and the cost to all society with their exclusion from the ability to rise as she has from the crushing defeat prison can be for anyone. A barefoot frontrunner, Piper Kerman sounds like she is not going to stop till she gets some results from a society that is waking up to the news that prison is a business we can’t afford to support any longer.