Incarceration is the New Black By: Kimberly Hayes

Piper Kerman speaks on Criminal Justice reform for women

Piper Kerman speaks on Criminal Justice reform for women

As we embark upon the latest installment of the Netflix cult-classic, Orange is the New Black, we are presented with the opportunity and necessary obligation to discuss the effects of the criminal justice system and women.

The White House is holding a summit today on the United State of Women, and it brings up important discussions on all things women from entrepreneurship and violence against women to equal pay, reproduction, civic engagement, and leadership.  Some of these topics show us how women are often left out of the primary conversation when it comes to places where our voices should be heard.

Piper Kerman, did a great service to us all by shining an artistic light on some of the very real issues effecting women in prisons.  With the display that we see in OITNB, it makes one wonder, how much art imitates life and moreover, does anyone care enough outside of their binge-watching to pay attention to the real issues showcased in this compelling programming?  Well, Piper Kerman happens to be one of those people who actually cares about these issues beyond the onscreen project.  She was a recent guest at the White House discussing Criminal Justice Reform and women.  Conversations like this need to continue as it brings to light issues not considered by a mainstream audience.

As we are seeing everyday remnants and effects of the notorious Crime Bill of 1994, we often only think of how it effects men in prisons and fail to recognize the real scenarios of how many women, and their families are affected by incarceration.  Just for context, the Crime Bill of 1994 authorized $12.5B to states to increase incarceration, and 20 states took part in this surge of mass incarceration.  In an environment where incarceration is incentivized, women suffer largely by being absent from their families as they are hugely effected by mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing.  As we soar past the 20-year milestone (plus some) of the infamous ’94 Crime Bill, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the tougher sentencing laws and obstructed opportunities for women to avoid incarceration.

Women are often the victims and survivors of crime and then, in turn, they are incarcerated due to the circumstances surrounding their victimhood.  Incarcerated women also experience unspeakable traumas, mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders and other acute medical conditions along with some police discrimination.  The detachment from family for women can be more severe than that of male counterparts as the woman is, in a lot of cases, the central unit of a family, especially when children are involved. Incarcerating a woman essentially means that an entire family will be incarcerated by extension, as a child will lose the nurturing of that parental unit.

As the focus of women in prisons is very layered, another aspect of this conversation includes Trans Women who are incarcerated and the type of violence and discrimination they face along with the aforementioned related traumas of other female inmates. The Department of Justice has been involved in trying to reduce serious offenses such as crime against TG women and is making an effort to ensure certain protections for inmates affected by this type of targeted violence in prison. As strides have been made for protection of female inmates from violence and other conditions, there is still a long way to go. In 2013, then Attorney General, Eric Holder established the Smart on Crime Initiative that would try to combat some of the harsh realities that the criminal justice system has come to know.  The reforms that were suggested in this initiative would allot necessary resources to this cause, as well as ensure just punishments for low-level offenses and strengthen protections for the vulnerable.

The intersection of reality and reform meet at crossroads when we see everyday injustices within the legal system.  Reform often takes a while to enact, however, the traumas associated with incarceration continue to manifest while sentences are being served.  While there is hope associated with some of the newer initiatives that the Department of Justice is rolling out, we wonder if the incarcerated will see the positive effects of criminal justice reform prior to the devastation that can occur during a sentence.  Being included in the conversation about women and reform is important, and I hope that the “trend” of women in prisons and the effects thereof, will stand out beyond a television series and wake the masses to what is happening to women in real life prisons.

Follow Kimberly Hayes @Dreamgirl1