There is much to love in Orange is the New Black: plot-twists as startling as Laura Prepon’s eyebrows, characters as sensual as Sapphic sex in the shower and social commentary as perceptive as perfectly made-up cat-eyes. This is a show that makes weekend-long binge-tele-watching seem like a healthy lifestyle option.
Piper Kerman, the author of the book that inspired the series, said that she wrote it in the hope of stimulating prison reform. Like Piper on the show, she was an artisanal bird print of white bourgeois privilege who journeyed to the dark side, quite literally. She spent time with the mostly African-American and Hispanic prison population in a low-security institution after her conviction for a decade-old drug-related trafficking offence. Jenji Kohan, the show’s director, knew that selling a story that reflected the racist reality of prison would be tough. So she threw a white person at the centre, because we white people like that, and surrounded her with a cast of ethnically and sexually diverse characters, each with their own story.
But perhaps this show should be more than a very compelling reason for couchly sloth. Perhaps we should be learning about the real women behind bars rather than communing with the fantasy figures on our screens. What would Orange is the New Black look like if it was set in Australia rather than the US? What characters would we encounter? And should they be in prison in the first place?
To begin with, we’d find that most women are imprisoned for the crime of being poor. A 2005 Sisters Inside Report found that 80% of women are imprisoned for poverty related offences mostly to do with drugs. In 2012 in NSW the top four offences by women that attracted police were shoplifting, assault, fraud and possession of drugs.
In case you’re thinking that these are genuine crimes for which people should go to prison, let’s put it in perspective. How many people do you know who sometimes fail to report income for centrelink or whose parents have put them on the company books so that they can claim independent status while at uni? How many don’t pay tax, or claim more than they should on their tax returns? How many went through a teenage shoplifting phase? And how many have taken ecstasy, marijuana, acid or cocaine? In my own experience teaching at elite universities and socialising with a shameless coterie of middle-class wankers, the numbers are alarmingly high. Epidemic level. In fact, if we were going to enforce the same penalties on the middle classes as we do on the poor then our prisons should be bursting with private school girls and law students. Instead, the poor get prison and the wealthy get a disappointed look from their parents.
You’d also encounter Aboriginal women. According to 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Figures Aboriginal women are the most over-represented and fastest growing group in Australian prisons. Indigenous people represent about a quarter of the prison population. They tend to serve shorter sentences, which means that they are imprisoned for very minor offences such as driving infringements and non-payment of fines. Like the non-Aboriginal women in prison they are likely to be survivors of sexual and physical abuse. Debbie Kilroy (OAM) estimates that around 98% of women prisoners have experienced physical abuse and 89% have experienced sexual abuse.
Imagine what these women have to go through every time they want to see a visitor. First, there’s the strip search which most women experience as sexual assault. As one Fairlea prisoner put it:
“We are strip searched after every visit. We are naked, told to bend over, touch our toes, spread our cheeks. If we've got our period we have to take the tampon out in front of them. It's degrading and humiliating. When we do urines it's even worse, we piss in a bottle in front of them. If we can't or won't we lose visits for three weeks”.
Not only are strip searches only capable of showing up the smallest quantities of substances, they are the last thing you would want to make a survivor of sexual abuse go through. Indigenous women from remote locations in Queensland report extreme levels of trauma from strip searches as they are often forced to do them in front of men, from whom they are usually segregated.
Second, there’s the fact that prison authorities often restrict contact hours for mothers with their children without notification. At Emu Plain prison in 2007 mothers were told that they could only have two hour blocks of time with their children. Police also often hinder visitations. When I worked at a prisoner rights organisation we had a case of police waiting outside the prison on visitation day and charging people who had hammers in their car with possession of dangerous implements. Given that rehabilitation works best through community integration it’s hardly the best tactic.
But maybe we don’t want prisoners to be reformed. Prison privatisation has meant putting people in cages has become big business in Australia. Victoria most likely has the highest level of prison privatisation compared to any jurisdiction in the world, including America.
There’s an obvious conflict of interest here. Prisons should be providing a secure and humane environment but cheaper facilities mean more profit. The larger the prison population then the bigger the payment under government contracts and the more shareholders and companies line their pockets. As Peter Norden asks, is it any wonder that the prison population has increased at almost three times the rate of the national population since prison privatisation began over two decades ago?
Perhaps the real picture of women behind bars is not quite as titillating as OITNB sex behind church pews. But it’s worth knowing so that we can campaign to change it. And if you’re interested in doing something then why not contact Sisters Inside or Justice Action? And then you can get back to couch-side speculations over whether Alex is going to come back or not.