Women Behind Bars
Orange is the New Black, a popular, new Netflix comedy-drama series, adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange in the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, has received praise and has captured the attention of many. Piper Kerman was arrested after her former lover exposed her involvement in a heroin trafficking ring from a decade earlier and was sentenced to 15 months in a Connecticut (the Netflix show takes place in New York) federal prison.
There are several TV shows and movies that examine life behind bars, but it is rare that one addresses what prison life is like for a woman. Orange is the New Black provides a look at life behind bars for women and it aims to answer the questions: Why are women locked up? What happens once they are there? While the topic of women in prison is a successful plot for a TV series, it is not often addressed in society. The reality is that life behind bars is a way of life for many women in the U.S. and we tend to overlook this incarcerated population.
The Women’s Prison Association’s (WPA) Institute on Women and Criminal Justice reports that they “have witnessed a truly extraordinary rise in the number of women behind bars—at a rate of growth that far exceeds an already staggering increase in the male prison population.”
A report released by The Sentencing Project, states that the number of women in prison increased by 587% between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,787. If you include women in local jails, the number of incarcerated women rises to above 200,000. In 2011, they reported that 65 out of every 100,000 women were in prison, with Oklahoma incarcerating more women per capita than any other state (121 out of 100,000).
The report also indicates that more than 1 million women are under some sort of supervision of the criminal justice system.
o Prison: 111,387
o Jail: 93,300
o Probation: 712,084
o Parole: 103,374
The Sentencing Project also reported that Black women were incarcerated at 2.5 times the rate of White women, and Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.4 times the rate of White women. Despite the fact that Hispanic and Black women are incarcerated at higher rates when compared to White women, more White women are in prison than in the past. The rate of incarceration for White women increased 38% from 2000-2010, while the rate of incarceration of Black women decreased 35%. Putting race aside, the Women’s Prison Association reported that, in 2008, 51% of sentenced women were between the ages of 30 – 44, with 36% of those between the ages of 35-39.
Cause and Effect
We can examine numbers and percentages, but it is important to think about why these women are finding themselves behind bars. Men are more likely to be in prison for violent offenses, which the FBI has categorized into four categories: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be in jail for property or drug offenses. Many women also find themselves incarcerated because they were an accessory to a crime committed by a man. Katherine Ramsland, an Associate Professor of Forensics Psychology and non-fiction writer for Trutv.com, writes that “many women end up in prison because they’ve retaliated against abuse as a way to protect themselves and their children… Some women are also duped by boyfriends or spouses to become part of an illegal operation, and they unwittingly participate and get arrested. As a Court TV movie Guilt by Association illustrated, sometimes a woman has only to pick up the phone or carry a package, and she’ll get a heftier prison sentence than the man.”
In her book, Good Girls Gone Bad, journalist Susan Nadler talked with a variety of women in prison and found that they tended to fit into one of several categories:
o Acting out or defying an image: People think of you in a certain way and you want to do something outrageous to prove that you’re not what they think.
o Snapping: While this is a controversial diagnosis, in ordinary language it means that someone was pushed by events to the breaking point.
o Being the outlaw: they pursue crime to develop an image that they perceive as cool or working outside social boundaries. (One woman with whom Nadler talked had grown up privileged, but by the time she was 24, “Rosa” had pulled over 500 burglaries, had three men working for her, and was earning over $200,000 a year.)
o Addiction: 90% of women in prison have substance abuse problems.
o Following a role model: Especially in gangs, girls who see those they respect committing a crime tend to do the same.
o Keeping someone’s attention or affection: Many women who team up with men get involved in their criminal activities as a way to keep them romantically involved. They end up in prison for crimes they might not otherwise have done.
o Obsession: Some women develop a fixation that involves crossing legal boundaries.
o Justification by the act of others: they did it and so can I.
After much research and analysis, the Women’s Prison Association presents four themes that often apply to women who are committing crimes. “First, most women in the criminal justice system come from neighborhoods that are entrenched in poverty and largely lacking in viable systems of social support. Second, alarmingly large numbers of these women have experienced very serious physical and/or sexual abuse, often commencing when they were young children. Third, as adults, most of these women are plagued with high levels of physical and mental health problems as well as substance abuse issues. Fourth, the great majority of the women who have suffered from these deprivations, histories of trauma and abuse, and health deficits are mothers—and they are far more likely than men in the criminal justice system to be the sole support and caregivers for their children.”
Off with her head?
While 2/3 of women are incarcerated for property or drug related offenses, there are still those who are in prison for a violent offense. Professor Victor Streib from the Ohio Northern University Law School, has studied women who have been executed or on death row. In his report, Death Penalty for Female Offenders, he reports:
o In 2011, women constituted 6.4% of all persons sentenced to death, the highest percentage for any year since 1973.
o As of the end of 2011, 58 women were on death row, 18 of whom are in California, which hasn’t executed a woman since 1962. California, Texas and Florida were the leading states for sentencing women to death from 1973 through 2011.
o A total of 174 death sentences were imposed upon female offenders from 1973 through 2011. These 174 death sentences for female offenders constitute just 2.1% of all death sentences imposed during the same time period.
o Approximately 50% of the women on death row received the death penalty for killing a husband, boyfriend, a related child, or a child in her care.
o There have been 12 executions of women since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, just under 1% of all executions in that time.
There are several organizations that research and analyze the incarceration of women, and many strive to find solutions to this growing trend. The Institute on Women and Criminal Justice’s, “The Punitiveness Report-HARD HIT: The Growth in Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004” concludes that, “The majority of women in the U.S. prison system are serving sentences for nonviolent drug and property offenses. Many are incarcerated as a result of the overly harsh laws and policies adopted at the height of the “War on Drugs.”… Most Americans favor mandatory drug treatment and community service rather than prison—even for those who sell small amounts of drugs. From both an economic and public safety standpoint, the advantages of employing substance-abuse treatment and gender-responsive services instead of prison for such women are clear. … Incarcerating women does not solve the problems that underlie their involvement in the criminal justice system. Their imprisonment creates enormous turmoil and suffering for their children. What makes far more sense is sensible sentencing reforms and public investment in effective drug treatment and gender-responsive services to aid women who seek to live law-abiding lives and provide a healthy and stable home for their children.”