The popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, is based on real-life experiences in Piper Kerman’s memoir about the year she spent in prison for her participation in an international drug smuggling caper. The show is designed to humanize women behind bars—to show they are not an amorphous group of derelicts and that some people who wind up in prison really don’t need to be there. Regardless of where you might stand on the need to incarcerate as many people as we do in the United States—truth is without shows like Orange and Oz, the vast majority of Americans would pay little attention to the millions languishing behind bars.
Even as the number of men incarcerated in U. S. prisons and jails continue to decline, the number of women entering America’s jails and prisons continue to grow at an alarming rate. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the female prison population grew by 11 percent over the last four years while the male population was declining by 4 percent over the same period. As the nation’s incarcerated population was mushrooming over the last several decades—inching up in the 1970s and then more than quadrupling between 1980 and 2010 from about 500,000 to more than 2.2 million—the number of incarcerated women grew at a rate 1.5 times greater than that of men. Much more attention has been given to men because their numbers dwarf that of women.
There are about 205,000 women in prisons and jails today, and another 800,000-plus under supervision on probation and parole—a million women under the watchful eye of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice experts believe an increase the use of heroin and methamphetamine is fueling the rising number of inmates. A study released by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) found in a random sample of women in rural and urban jails 82 percent of participants met the criteria for lifetime substance abuse or dependence and 43 percent of participants met the criteria for a lifetime serious mental illness. According to the ACLU, the vast majority of women inmates (85-90%) have a history of domestic and sexual abuse.
Many female inmates wind up in facilities where they are supervised by male corrections officers opening the door for sexual and emotional abuse. It is nearly impossible to compile statistics on abuse because much of it goes unreported as female inmates fear retribution by their attackers. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 focused mainly on abuse between male inmates and failed to adequately address the plight of female prisoners who are assaulted by guards. Retribution sometimes includes solitary confinement which is a particularly devastating experience for women.
As more women are being incarcerated, more children are collateral victims. At least 75 percent of incarcerated women were the primary caregivers for their dependent children before they were arrested. Including fathers, it is now estimated that about 2.5 million children have a parent behind bars. The little research that has been done with these children document many have psychological scars that may never heal. Many suffer from shame and have attachment problems. School systems are reluctant to target them for special attention out of fear they may be stigmatized. Yet we know they are at risk for many problems in the future and the probability of their engaging in risky behaviors is high.
So how do you stop the flow of women into jails and prisons? U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has addressed the nation’s incarceration policies in recent months signaling he and the Obama Administration are ready to tackle the problem of reducing the number of Americans incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons. Unfortunately, they must wait on Congress to act. Many states are already acting in order to reduce the huge chunk of the budget it cost to keep people locked up. In the meantime, more women are entering the system without very much attention.