“Orange is the New Black”: Examining the Life of a Female Inmate

Feb 5, 2015 - by Francesca Spina - 0 Comments

The Netflix produced television series, "Orange is the New Black," is a comedy-drama set in a women's prison in upstate New York. While the author finds it to be an entertaining show that touches on several important issues confronting incarcerated women, she has her own ideas about how to give the show the depth it lacks in portraying the challenges women face in prison.

 by Francesca Spina 

 Orange is the New Black,” a comedy-drama series about a women’s prison in upstate New York, has gained popularity since it was released by Netflix in 2013. This series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, in which she details her experiences in a female correctional facility. The television series revolves around the character, Piper Chapman, who is sentenced to 15-months in a female federal prison for transporting drug money for her former girlfriend, Alex Vause, an international drug smuggler. The crime occurred a decade before the start of the series, and Piper had since become a law-abiding citizen, living with her fiancé, Larry Bloom, in an upper middle-class neighborhood of New York City. However, once in prison, Piper is reunited with Alex, and the series examines their relationship, as well as documenting how Piper deals with her fellow inmates and navigates prison life.

 

Although the television series is entertaining and touches upon several important issues in the U.S. correctional system, it portrays prison life to be more like a college sorority than a correctional facility. This article examines five aspects of female correctional facilities as observed throughout the series and how they compare to current research on female prisons: (1) characteristics of female inmates; (2) the motherhood problem; (3) sexual victimization in prison; (4) female inmates and histories of abuse and mental illness and (5) programs for female inmates. It concludes with some implications for policy on female correctional facilities and suggestions for future seasons of “Orange is the New Black.”

 

Characteristics of Female Inmates

 

In most ways, Piper Chapman is dissimilar to the average female inmate. Piper grew up in an upper middle-class family, is college educated and considers herself to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). On the contrary, the typical female prisoner is a mother of young children, undereducated, poor, relies on public assistance for income and has a substance abuse problem. Furthermore, female inmates typically come from troubled homes and are often the victims of domestic violence. Many also came from broken homes as children and have histories of physical or sexual abuse. 

 

Although Piper does not resemble the typical female inmate in many ways, she is similar to many female inmates in federal prison because she was incarcerated for a drug offense. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), almost half of inmates in federal prison have been convicted of a drug offense. Unfortunately, this has become an alarming trend in female correctional populations over the past few decades. In 1970, there were approximately 6,000 females in federal and state prisons. Today, there are over 110,000 females in prison. Furthermore, there are an additional 100,000 women who are housed in local jails. In addition, the female jail population increased an average of 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013, while the male jail population decreased by approximately 1 percent every year over the same time period.

 

This considerable increase in the female prison population can mainly be attributed to harsher sentencing polices, including mandatory minimums and stricter penalties for drug offenses. These policies mandate a minimum prison sentence for offenders who commit certain crimes, including many drug offenses. Likewise, they preclude offenders who are convicted of certain crimes from being sentenced to probation. Consequently, many female offenders nominally involved in drug crimes are punished severely due to policy, when they would have previously been placed on probation. Most females incarcerated for drug crimes pose little risk to the community, and it would be more beneficial for them to serve their sentences within the community, rather than in a correctional facility. This would minimize the stigma associated with incarceration as well as the effects incarceration can have on children.

 

The Motherhood Problem

 

Approximately 70 percent of female prisoners have at least one child under 18-years old. Furthermore, up to one-third of mothers in prison have children younger than 5 years old. With approximately 100 female correctional facilities in the U.S., female inmates are often hundreds of miles away from their children. Consequently, many of these women rarely see their children, and other issues can arise as a result of their incarceration. 

 

For instance, it is important for mothers and children to develop a bond while the child is still young, even as early as infancy. Infants whose needs are met are more likely to feel deserving of love and to be secure in their future relationships. On the other hand, infants whose needs are not met are often insecure in future relationships. Unfortunately, this bond is disrupted and the child’s needs are unfulfilled when a mother and her child are separated due to the mother’s incarceration. Problems often arise for these children, including separation anxiety, depression, and difficulty with authority figures. Therefore, frequent visitation is important to allow parents and children to maintain their relationship during the mother’s incarceration.

 

In addition, many female inmates were the sole caretaker for their children prior to incarceration, often leaving the children without a suitable place to live. In many instances, the children are able to stay with their maternal grandmother or their father while the mother is incarcerated. However, when there are no suitable living arrangements, the children are either put up for adoption or placed into foster care. These alternatives can create problems for the mother regaining custody of her children upon release.

 

Although “Orange is the New Black” did not address the enormity of the motherhood problem in prison, it did provide two examples of female inmates who were pregnant while in prison, which is another concern in correctional facilities. Some inmates are sentenced to prison when they are already pregnant, while others become pregnant while they are incarcerated. This can include getting pregnant during work release, conjugal visits, furloughs, or sexual intercourse or rape by correctional staff.

 

In the first example, inmate Maria Ruiz is pregnant before she is incarcerated. In one episode, she is seen being taken to the hospital after she has gone into labor. Upon returning to prison, her fellow inmates are sympathetic to her, knowing how difficult it must have been for her to part with her newborn baby. Throughout the series, there are several segments in which Maria is visited by her baby and the baby’s father.

 

In the second example, inmate Daya Diaz becomes pregnant while she is in prison. Over the course of several episodes, Daya develops a relationship with John Bennett, a correctional officer at the prison, and shortly after becomes pregnant with his child. Throughout Daya’s pregnancy, it is apparent that the prison is not providing her with adequate prenatal care. The most notorious example is when Bennett sneaks prenatal vitamins into the prison for Daya via his prosthetic leg because the prison is not providing her with supplements. Unfortunately, this example accurately depicts the reality for many pregnant inmates. Because there is no mandatory accreditation requiring correctional facilities to enforce standards for pregnancy-related health care, facilities may not provide suitable prenatal care to inmates. Research has found that many pregnant inmates received inadequate health care, suffered from nutritional deficits, and were given no changes to their workload requirements. 

 

Sexual Victimization in Prison

 

Another serious problem in correctional facilities are sexual victimizations and rapes. There were many examples of sexual victimizations in “Orange is the New Black,” but the most notable involves a triangle between Daya, Bennett, and another correctional officer, George Mendez, who is known for sexually assaulting inmates. Because an inmate cannot consent to sexual intercourse with a correctional officer, the act would be classified as rape or sexual abuse. Therefore, it is not in Bennett’s interest to confess that he impregnated Daya because he could be imprisoned for raping an inmate. However, Daya cannot hide her pregnancy indefinitely, so she tricks Mendez into having intercourse with her to blame him for the pregnancy. As planned, when Captain Joe Caputo discovers that Daya is pregnant, Caputo assumes Mendez is the father and has him arrested. Feeling guilty, Bennett confesses to Caputo that he is the father of Daya’s child, not Mendez. Not wanting another scandal in the prison, Caputo tells Bennett to keep quiet and not tell anyone else that he is the father of Daya’s child.

 

Even though the previous example was overly dramatized, sexual victimization in prisons is a real concern. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported over 6,000 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons and over 2,000 allegations of sexual victimization in local jails. Approximately half of the allegations involved nonconsensual sexual acts or abusive sexual contact of inmates by other inmates, while the other half involved sexual misconduct or harassment by staff that was directed towards inmates. 

 

Over the past decade, there has been an increasing effort to eliminate prison rape in federal, state and local correctional facilities. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 to eliminate prison rape and sexual victimizations within the confines of correctional facilities. PREA has a number of purposes, including eliminating prison rape and the costs associated with it, developing national standards to eliminate prison rape, increasing the available data on the incidence of prison rape and increasing the accountability of prison officials who overlook prison rape. Additionally, PREA has shaped people’s perceptions of prison rape. Rather than view prison rape as part of prison culture, PREA enforces the notion that rape will not be tolerated within prison walls.

 

It is important to eliminate prison rape and other sexual victimizations because these acts can have negative physical and psychological effects on victims. Not only can victims suffer from physical pain, but they also are at increased risk of contracting diseases such as HIV or hepatitis B. In addition, prisoners who have been raped once are more likely to be targeted in the future, causing them to live in fear. Furthermore, prison rape also undermines the effectiveness of government expenditures. By allowing prison rape to occur, there are increases in levels of violence, health care expenditures, mental health care expenditures and the risk of recidivism.

 

Female Inmates and Histories of Abuse and Mental Illness

 

Female inmates differ from their male counterparts because they are more likely to have a history of physical or sexual abuse. This is one aspect of female correctional facilities that was not adequately addressed in “Orange is the New Black.” In one episode, there was mention that inmate Gloria Mendoza was a victim of domestic abuse, but that was one of the few, if not the only, mention of an inmate being abused prior to incarceration. However, according to the BJS, 55 percent of female jail inmates reported that they had been abused at some point in their lives, compared to 13 percent of their male counterparts. Furthermore, 57 percent of females in state prisons and 40 percent in federal prisons reported past abuse.  

 

As a result of past abuse, up to 80 percent of female inmates also have high rates of substance abuse. Throughout “Orange is the New Black,” it is apparent that many of the inmates had a history of drug or alcohol abuse, including Nicky, “Pennsatucky,” Poussey Washington, Tricia Miller and Yoga Jones. However, the series fails to address the connection between past trauma and substance abuse.

 

Furthermore, nearly 75 percent of females in state prisons and jails have been found to have mental health problems. Research has found that approximately one-third of female inmates have been diagnosed with depression and almost one-quarter with anxiety. However, in “Orange is the New Black,” Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is the only inmate portrayed with a mental illness. Suzanne is a mentally ill inmate who has an obsession with Piper, following her around the prison and referring to her as “Dandelion.” After Piper refuses several of her advances, “Crazy Eyes” reacts by urinating on the floor of Piper’s sleeping quarters. Furthermore, throughout the series, “Crazy Eyes” is seen beating herself on the head when she becomes upset. 

 

Programs for Female Inmates

 

“Orange is the New Black” briefly discussed some of the programs available in prison, but they were often depicted inaccurately. For example, in one episode, there was a job fair entitled “Dress for Success.” Although “Dress for Success” could be a legitimate program, the series portrayed it as a glorified fashion show, rather than a program run by a correctional facility. Furthermore, in another episode, correctional officer Sam Healy started a counseling program which none of the inmates attended. In reality, there would never be a prison program or initiative with no one in attendance.  

 

On the contrary, there is a gap between the treatment services that are available in female prisons and the treatment needs of female inmates. For example, even though the number of female prisoners with a history of substance abuse continues to grow, the percentage who receive treatment continues to decline. Research indicates that only 16 percent of female inmates have access to the services they need.

 

Because the number of females under correctional supervision continues to grow, it is important to target the needs of female offenders. Treatment programs for incarcerated females should focus on two elements: (1) Reducing the risk of recidivism upon release into the community and (2) improving the psychological and physical well-being of incarcerated females. Programs include services such as substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, educational trainings, job preparedness trainings, parenting programs and family reunification programs.

 

Given the high rates of mental illness and histories of abuse among female inmates, it is crucial to address these needs in prison. Prison may be the only opportunity some females have to address past traumas, as well as how these traumas are associated with substance abuse, mental illness and criminality. If these issues are left untreated, many female inmates will not be productive members of society upon release from prison.

 

In addition, prison education is crucial for improving job skills to increase the odds of becoming employed upon release and consequently reducing the likelihood of recidivism. However, there has historically been a lack of educational programs in female correctional facilities, which are often restricted to cosmetology and secretarial courses.

 

Furthermore, other prison interventions focus on improving parenting skills. Incarcerated mothers are concerned with retaining custody of their children upon release, so they can benefit greatly from programs that enhance their parenting skills. Females often return to families that have been broken apart by custody battles and other legal problems, while males may return to partners who have kept the family structure intact during the period of incarceration. 

 

Policy Implications   

 

Researchers and service providers in correctional settings must continue to evaluate the needs of female prisoners and implement programs based on gender-specific needs. Based on the current research, several recommendations are offered. First, because there is evidence that female inmates want to keep the family intact, it is important to expand upon family reunification programs. One suggestion is to mandate parenting classes for incarcerated mothers, as well as family reunification programs post-release.This will help to promote positive connections between incarcerated mothers and their families.

 

Second, it is important to continue implementing programs to address substance abuse, trauma, and mental health issues. Because the majority of female inmates have substance abuse issues and mental health issues, it is important to continue funding programs that address these needs. It is also crucial to address the gap in the amount of treatment services available and the needs of female offenders. Without services to remedy past traumas, addiction and mental illness, these women will continue to cycle through the criminal justice system.

 

Finally, it is also important to improve upon reentry programs so inmates can become productive members of society upon release into the community. Incarceration provides a suitable time to help women who have been involved in the cycle of crime, violence and poverty. Because most women in prison have little education or work experience, job training and vocational programs can provide them with the skills necessary for gainful employment.

 

Concluding Remarks

 

Although “Orange is the New Black” depicts prison life to be more like a sorority than a correctional facility, it is very entertaining nonetheless. Furthermore, it is intended to be a comedy-drama as opposed to a documentary on female prisons. In addition, it does raise awareness to some issues in female prisons that many of its viewers may not be aware of—particularly how many female inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. 

 

However, given its popularity, subsequent seasons could include aspects of research to heighten viewers’ awareness about certain issues in female prisons. Specifically, the writers could take several measures: (1) introduce more characters with mental illnesses; (2) identify the link between past trauma and substance abuse for each of the characters; (3) address the motherhood problem by showing flashbacks of inmates with their children and (4) improve the representation of programs offered to female inmates. By introducing these elements to the series, “Orange is the New Black” can remain a comedy-drama, but will be strengthened because it will give its viewers a more accurate depiction of life as a female inmate.

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