What can a good-looking, white woman with a Smith College degree and middle-class upbringing teach us about prisons in America?
When she was in her 20s, Piper Kerman was persuaded by her lover Norma--who was involved in an international drug ring--to carry a suitcase of drug trafficking money into the U.S. She was not caught at the time, but was arrested five years later as part of an investigation into the drug kingpin, a Nigerian, and his coterie of mules and couriers. A further five years elapsed as she waited for the Nigerian to be extradited from the U.K. to face trial in the U.S., where she was expected to testify against him. When it became clear that he was not going to be extradited, her ‘hotshot’ lawyer advised her to plead guilty to a lesser charge of money laundering to avoid being charged with conspiracy to smuggle drugs, and receive a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. Thus, ten years after her offense she was sent to the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut to serve a 13-month sentence.
She writes about her personal journey in surviving incarceration in the book, Orange Is the New Black (now also a Netflix video series). The help and support she receives from her fiancé, family, and friends in New York, Massachusetts, and California are critical; they visit frequently, write constantly, and send books and money. Equally important, though, are the women she gets to know in the prison who teach her lessons in perseverance, creativity, spirituality, and collegiality. Wary and mistrustful at first, she allows herself to become close to some women, is grateful for the lessons they teach her, and is profoundly changed by her experience.
These lessons are realized just a few weeks before her scheduled release date, when she encounters Norma in the Chicago Correctional Center where she has been transported by “Con Air” to give testimony against another major player in the drug scheme. She overcomes her anger at Norma’s betrayal as together they cope with conditions far worse than the federal prisons from which they have come. In the Correctional Center, Kerman is horrified by the ‘crazy’ women and indifferent staff; the idleness and lack of daily structure; lack of daylight and exercise; inedible food and filthy conditions; and the inability to escape the constant noise and light.
Certainly, the picture she paints of the Danbury prison is not without criticism: there is only one psychiatrist for 1,400 inmates; drug treatment is not available so women are sent ‘down the hill’ to the main prison for it; and most of the guards, including those conducting strip searches, are men. But the prisoners generally have steady work, exercise, opportunities to prepare food, create their own entertainment, and to celebrate birthdays and other milestones.
Understandably, her experience is focused on herself. This book’s value is that it offers a rare autobiographical account of life in prison as experienced by a woman. Although she mentions the scale of incarceration in the U.S. -- the average daily population is around two million people, of which 211,000 are women--any references she makes to other prisons and the larger context are largely parenthetical to her account, and she provides only a brief appendix with a list of organizations to contact for information.
As someone who has conducted research on women in prison and facilitates a group working to expand alternatives to incarceration for women (the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network) I would like to underscore five of the disparities and concerns she discusses.
1. A tribal community. Kerman has no illusions regarding her atypical class and racial status. She observes that race is an organizing factor in the ‘tribe’ mentality of the initial prison reception area, and becomes less of a factor later on in women’s efforts to choose compatible, long-term bunkmates. However, race and ethnic distinctions are the sharpest dividing point within corrections. While Black men are imprisoned at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000, compared to the rate for non-Hispanic white men at 459 per 100,000, women are also divided racially. Black women are imprisoned at a rate of 133 per 100,000 compared to 47 for non-Hispanic white women.
2. Federal prisons and the rest. Although Kerman comments on how federal prison is an improvement on the Chicago jail, she misses the opportunity to educate readers about the small percentage of women held in federal prisons (7%) compared to state (46%) and local (47%) institutions; or how the number of women in prison has grown 400 percent since the 1980s.
3. One bad choice. Kerman is perplexed by a system that treats her harshly for making one bad decision. Yet her experience in successfully entering a plea for a lesser charge compares starkly to the experience of Elaine Bartlett, an African-American woman from the Lower East Side, who also made one serious mistake. In agreeing to her boyfriend’s request that she transport an envelope of cocaine to an upstate New York motel, she sees an opportunity to buy presents and food for Christmas for her four children. When caught in a ‘sting’ operation, she is unable to plea bargain and receives a mandatory minimum drug sentence of 16 years in Bedford Hills, a New York maximum security state prison.
4. Families. Kerman mentions that 80 percent of women in prison have children and describes how some women in Danbury forgo visits to spare their children the shock of seeing their mothers in prison. Yet, left to wonder where their mothers have gone, many children experience anger, anxiety, and depression. However, women who make this choice not to maintain regular contact with their children are vulnerable to having them adopted after 15 months. The children who are brought to visit by grandparents and other family members often travel several hours, and find the experience intimidating: few prisons have child-friendly visiting rooms with toys; children may be searched; and snacks may be forbidden.
5. The ‘snakepit’ of pretrial detention. She is shocked to find out that almost all the women in the Metropolitan Corrections Center have not been sentenced, but are awaiting trial. Prior to this, her skilled lawyer’s intervention and her ability to post bail had allowed her to avoid pretrial incarceration and to carry on with her work, life, and love for five years prior to being sentenced. Nationally, about 60 percent of the incarcerated population in local jails is held pretrial.
The book’s title, Orange is the New Black, adopts a sophisticated sartorial tone taken from a New York Times Style Section. It is ironic that few of Kerman’s fellow inmates would understand the title and that she wears the orange uniform only for a few days at the end of her sentence when she is transported to testify in Chicago, and is held in the pretrial unit. Certainly her experience is atypical, but it highlights a broken and biased system that is especially hard on women and has serious consequences for the next generation.
Note: The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network, the Wellesley Centers for Women, has selected the pretrial issue as one of its two priorities for action, 2012-2013; and a Briefing Note with recommendations for change is currently being circulated to policy makers. We found that women are held pretrial for an average of 60-77 days, depending on the facility, because they could not pay or were denied bail--often a bail as small as $50. The results are devastating; although they have not yet been tried their children are displaced; they likely lose their homes, possessions, and jobs; and any medical treatment they need is disrupted. In addition, women from five counties are transported to the isolated medium security state prison because their counties have no facilities for women. The Awaiting Trial Unit is the most overcrowded in the state system, operating at 300-400 percent of capacity. Although federal and state statutes are clear that no person should be excluded from bail because of inability to pay, about half of the women are held because they cannot pay bail. And women may be denied bail for not complying with a probation requirement, i.e., they are imprisoned for an offense that initially did not warrant a prison sentence.
Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She is a leading member of the Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network.