How would an Australian version of Orange is the New Black look?


Alecia Simmonds


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.


17 comments so far

  • In the long run it costs more to be poor. How does that work? If you can't afford proper food, medical care and suitable clothing it catches up to you. Less opportunities to study or gain steady employment means you are in a more tenacious position and less likely to be able to advance in life.

    Date and time
    September 19, 2013, 9:15AM
    • I don't understand the point on prison authorities restricting visitation ... that's a punishment that should always be available to wardens, to be applied as required.
      And for what it's worth, here's another interesting statistic: women serve shorter sentences than men for the same crimes

      Date and time
      September 19, 2013, 9:20AM
      • "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.

        Advertisement In case you’re thinking that these are genuine crimes for which people should go to prison, let’s put it in perspective."

        Apparently the author has a different perspective on things to me. I really don't see how assaulting someone isn't a genuine, serious crime. Shoplifting hurts business owners, whether they be a small family store or a large corporation that many of us are part owners of through super or other investments. Fraud speaks for itself. Possession of drugs is illegal. We can argue all we want about whether it should be or not, or whether some should be legal and others shouldn't but the reality is if you are in jail for possession of them you were doing something illegal.

        It's wrong that the wealthy or middle class are more likely to get off with a warning than the poor, but that is a problem of sentencing not the criminality of the act.

        Date and time
        September 19, 2013, 10:10AM
        • just because it is illegal doesn't make it wrong. everyone takes drugs, everyone. some are legal, i.e. alcohol, some are not. laws are man made and can change in a heart beat, therefore are only in place for a period of time until something changes. putting someone in prison for drugs is ludicrous . privatising prisons is even more ludicrous.
          we need compassion not discipline for prisoners.

          Date and time
          September 19, 2013, 3:02PM
        • It may not make it wrong but it does make it illegal, which is why people end up in jail for drug related offences. I don't disagree that some drugs which are currently illegal should be legalised, but the fact remains that in the meantime if you buy, sell or use illegal drugs then you can be put in jail for it. Given that everyone knows that, it's pretty hard to be sympathetic for someone who is doing something that they know is illegal. If it was something like marijuana for medical purposes then maybe, but if you're doing coke, heroin etc then as far as I'm concerned it's your own fault if you end up in jail for it.

          I've got compassion for some prisoners, but as far as I'm concerned there are also plenty who are in jail because they deserve to be there.

          Date and time
          September 19, 2013, 5:26PM
      • Prisons are there to punish those who break the law and by definition those people lose the freedoms most of us take for granted be they rich poor or indigenous. I see nothing wrong in strip searches or the like as long as prisoners are allowed to meet face to face with their visitors. If however they adopted the glass/telephone type of visitation then there wouldn't be a need for strip searches and I can imagine the cries of horror if that was introduced. Its a case of take what you are allowed or go without. No sympathy here

        Isis Central
        Date and time
        September 19, 2013, 10:36AM
        • Sympathy or no, surely you would agree that it is distressing to say the least that these women are being strip searched in the presence of men? Strip searches may well be an unfortunate yet necessary response to prisoner behaviours, but the article suggests that the majority of women experience strip searches as sexual assaults. If that is true then strip searching protocols need drastic reforming.

          Date and time
          September 19, 2013, 1:22PM
      • Prison should be made so those who go in never want to go back.
        Dont make it a holiday paradise.
        If they go back inside again, then they are slow learners and dont deserve any sympathy.
        We have had enough of these anti-social fools making good citizens lives a misery.
        Too many blame drugs and bad upbringings. Well then learn from it and dont blame the world.

        Date and time
        September 19, 2013, 12:13PM
        • Spoken like someone who's never seen the inside of a prison.

          Take it from someone who has. It's so crappy in there that I don't even want to WORK there again, let alone be imprisoned. Prison is a depressing, bleak, scary place, where you have virtually no access to the people, places and things you love. There's nothing holiday or paradise about it.

          Red Pony
          Date and time
          September 19, 2013, 3:47PM
      • They are not their because they are poor they there because they committed a crime. Feminists always claim women get it worse than men in prison, what a load of rubbish. By any measure men get it far worse. What is more women are much more likely to receive a non custodial sentence with the average sentence set at about half what a man would receive for the same crime.

        Date and time
        September 19, 2013, 1:04PM

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