Tag Archives: Piper Kernam

Feminist history of prison reform

The feminist history of prison reform is described by Estelle Freedman, Stanford Professor  exemplified by Miriam Van Waters, the warden who changed the conditions and potential of prison for women in the 40’s.  From the earliest days of feminism in the 1800’s, prison reform has been a main thread of the intention and passion of the efforts to bring to those incarcerated an expression of a potential return to society.  We see in the world today the exponential growth of those incarcerated, men and women, and the failure of the prison system with the cost of prison and  loss of the potential of those incarcerated to contribute and participate in society. Estelle Freedman describes the feminism of Van Waters brought to women imprisoned in the 40’s from punitive to nurturance and the effects Van Waters brought to Framingham prison at the time.   Women in prison through the popular network series Orange is the New Black written by Piper Kernam, a Smith graduate,  who found herself in prison says her goal in this work is to bring recognition to the women in prison.  She has sounded the alarm that there is an 80% increase in the number of women being imprisoned in the past twenty years, and asks significant questions about their treatment and the future that they are less able to create out of prison once released.

Work by the  Ella Baker Center Center who have taken significant legislation to the State of California that has emptied some of the youth facilities and created positive change for youth with the goal of bringing the youth to active participation in society upon their release through Books Not Bars.   Currently they bring legislation to Sacramento to address the issues of incarceration.  They present the question ” What happens when women in prison leave children and families that need their care, and return with less ability to meet the conditions they face after prison-is this the best we can do for women?”  Ella Baker for their work in prison reform through Books not Bars has recently been awarded Google’s Bay Area Impact Challenge, with Executive Director Zachary Norris being granted a Prime Movers Fellowship.  The story of reform in prison, past and present, illustrates the need for a revision by all of society to evaluate the cost of incarceration, for women, for men and for the families and community.  Outrageous expense in maintaining the facilities and staff are one cost that is staggering.  But not often is  the cost of the loss of those in prison not able to participate with their children, their parents during imprisonment.  With limited rehabilitation or education, training or work, the lives of those in prison have them return with less ability to function in society when they have release.  The families have little or no support throughout their incarceration, or upon their return.  The profile of women incarcerated indicates they leave with even  less confidence to manage the difficulties they will face in restarting their lives. What can be done, what must be done is the question, and a major achievement by the Ella Baker Center’s Books not Bars has been to close youth facilities where the youth had been stored without preparation or training that would allow for a future upon their release.  A change in structure perceived and practiced by Van Waters can add significantly to the effectiveness of feminism in prison.

From the 1800’s, feminists have worked for Prison reform, and Estelle Freedman, brings up the name of Miriam Van Waters, and the practice under her leadership of maternal vs punitive structure for prison.   In 1848 two women in a Quakers meeting in Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and their husbands, in what is called the first wave of feminism sought to change the conditions under which men and women were imprisoned.  Freedman describes this first wave in her book of essays:  Feminism, Sexuality and Politics.   These first feminists  she describes as  “religiously motivated white middle class women in the late 19th Century”  who witnessed the squalor and abuse in conditions of prison, and sought to provide prisoners  conditions that offered the possibility of redemption.   The result of their efforts ultimately resulted  in separatism rather than a revisiting the conditions of prison, and that had women in separate facilities but the conditions unchanged in either prisons for men or women.

Dr. Freedman establishes in her book a framework from which to view the perspective of past present and future of feminism:  She states that the goal for feminism has always been in the historical context of social change to “not only empower women but to transform all American culture.”  Her study of the work of Miriam Van Waters, a very powerful visionary and prison director in the 1940’s illustrates the attempt and success that did not translate or generate to other prisons, but was a powerful vision nevertheless.

Miriam Van Waters brought groundwork to significant reform and accomplished a great deal in her role in the Massachusetts State Reform for Framingham prison. Van Waters sought to put in place redemptive and educational structure rather than punitive measures within prison.  Her work as Director of the women’s prisons became known nationally for taking “involuntary confinement to a place of voluntary community.”  Under her direction,  Framingham Prison for women allowed the women prisoners to  participate  in nurseries for the children, gardening, art and provided skill trainings for the women in an atmosphere of growth and nurturing.   The results were so outstanding and well reported, Dr. Freedman reports,  that students from Vassar, Smith, Wellesley sought to intern at these prisons then considered the hallmark of social welfare advance.

What happened to those efforts by feminists, by people in society who wanted to see the transformation that had been aspired to is a question for social researchers and feminists, and is the question of our time that must be answered.

Freedman identities the response of feminism now as those young people who are showing up and politically acting toward the betterment of humanity.   The millineals, Gen X and Y’s, those who seek equality of opportunity and access.   Certainly the young people who show up and volunteer and make the work happen at the Ella Baker Center’s Book Not Bars are a good example of what Freedman describes. .  They are the young people taking their skills to teach children in low income schools to learn to code.  They are the ones that seek social justice and many of them were more than likely among the Occupy movement of 2012 and 2013.  They are world wide, women demonstrating the need for education as a means to address poverty and freedom from sexual bondage.  They bring their  issues of inequity and abuse of power world wide, showing up in the streets with their cell phones and their tweets,  with small and large acts of rebellion in Egypt and Syria, and Turkey.  The third wave of feminism as Freedman sees it, are those youth who think globally, identify with the politics of equality on the job and in the world they will inherit.



Feminism and women in prison


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.