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Orange is the New Black, really a puddle jump

Berkeley Courthouse
Berkeley Courthouse
Peggy Reskin

Orange is the New Black, but really

KPFA had the author Piper Kerman, of Orange is the New Black on their program and she reported a startling figure. Kerman said that women in prison, state and federal, has been an increase of 800% since her incarceration. She also emphasized that the majority were non white, thus orange in her title is not a pun so much as it is a reference to the fact that more women of color are in prison than white and the increase of women in prison is alarming.

Fact checks of prison data reveals that 1 million women have gone through the criminal justice system since 1985, with 200,000 confined in state or local jails and represent 7% of the prison population. The rate of incarceration of women has doubled since 1985 with 30% black women, 16% Hispanic. In 2005, a black women was three times as likely as white to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women are 69% more likely to be incarcerated as white. 40% of the criminal justice cases of conviction were related to illegal drugs with 80% of women receiving more than a year in jail. This is a fact that Kerman quoted in the KPFA interview 5/5/14.

What does this represent for the nation? It reflects the fact that women may not have the funds for lawyers, and like the male non white convicted there is a lack of education and treatment for drug addiction for these women. It seems to represent also that there is growing equality in terms of women who go to jail, and they are of color predominantly: male or female. Case after case reveals that non whites receive more severe sentences, are consistently found guilty to crimes they did not commit; this is not news.

Piper Kerman in the popular Netflix show based on her book and her experiences in jail for Kerman is a means thru the stories of the women to create the compassion she says was her goal in writing the book. It points to the fact that for those who don’t succeed in school, and don’t get jobs or job training, and are black or hispanic, the road to jail can be a puddle jump that lasts a life time.

She points out the destructive elements of incarceration on families who are left behind, children, parents, siblings-all a cost rarely measured. Prison does not rehabilitate, prison does not educate or provide any future hope, but basically keeps the person confined and constrained to conditions that do not allow progression to a productive life outside. It is alarming that women have increased in the numbers they have in state and federal jails. It is a cost we feel in our schools, on our streets but mostly in the lives that are not lived because of the stigma and trauma of prison. Women in prison are also highly represented in HIV and Hepatitis C with few if any true health standards around their care.

Hurray for Orange is the New Black for making more known these facts, and the sad future of punishment rather than treatment for the women and men who find themselves in prison. We read every day about the fact that there is a profit in prison-that it is a for profit business, and that the cost to taxpayers per inmate is close to $104,000 year. This cost is not because they are getting training, education, mentoring and hope for a future of benefit to themselves and their community, but because of the high price of incarceration that the prison business and staff have benefit of.

Our future, their future are connected and self interest dictates we take seriously this alarming information and figure out a way to support women in and out of prison to reach a level of participation and contribution for themselves and their communities and families.