Women-in-prison drama’s like “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Australia’s “Wentworth” and Britain’s “Bad Girls” and investigative documentaries like Diane Sawyer’s “A Nation of Women Behind Bars” highlight life in lockdown and have opened up a national conversation about the lives and treatment of female prisoners.
When it comes to portraying women in prison, television either heightens the reality as seen in “OITNB,” the U.K.’s “Bad Girls” and Australia’s dark drama “Wentworth” or takes us behind the concrete walls and barbed-wire fences to see the real faces of female prisoners in America. Both approaches humanize incarcerated women and help us understand how they are more than criminals– that they are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and best friends.
In the alternate reality of Danbury Prison, where “OITNB” takes place, life behind bars is sometimes portrayed as a strict summer camp where friendships are made, alliances are formed, and sing-alongs and dance parties help break up the monotony. Other times we are led down the darker corridors of prison life, repositories of assault, abuse of power, gang wars, suicide, murder, paralyzing fear and desperate loneliness. The same is true of the British and Australian dramas set in this harrowing millieu.
The Washington Post has observed:
In a nation whose justice system often offers little more than one-size-fits-all injustice, a television series that inspires viewers to see convicts as fellow human beings can help us better understand and perhaps have a bit more empathy toward them. We should not confuse a TV program with a criminology course, but ‘Orange is the New Black’ goes a long way toward narrowing the gap between our perceptions of convicts and the sometimes surprising reality.
Balancing the public perception is a selection of reality docu-series that take a long, hard look at real women serving out real sentences in real time. TLC aired several specials that explore different issues faced by female prisoners. “Babies Behind Bars” looked at prisoners taking childcare classes in preparation to one day take care of the children they gave birth to in prison. ”Breaking Down the Bars,” helmed by Oprah’s OWN network, looks at daily prison life and focuses on therapy and rehabilitation. Producers even brought their own clinical psychologist to work with inmates.
Most recently, FOX’s hit “Empire” joined the ranks of shows portraying the impact of prison on American women. Its matriarch, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the powerhouse who brought her family to fame and fortune, developed her chops the hard way during her time in prison. Cookie represents the substantial number of black mothers who are separated from their children while serving prison sentences.
Cookie’s character highlights the impact of incarceration on mothers and the children they must leave behind while incarcerated–an issue that is reaching epidemic proportions. Not only does America currently have over 200,000 women serving sentences–the largest female prisoner population on earth–but about 56 percent report being parents. And today there are two African-American women behind bars for every white female inmate.
The US female inmate population has soared over 750% in the last three decades, nearly twice the rate of increase that men experienced. Today one out of every 100 black women in the U.S. is incarcerated, nearly three times the rate for women overall.
Not only do shows like “OITNB,” “Empire, “Bad Girls” and “Wentworth”" make female prisoners real to us, but they also highlight the additional societal issues that contribute to the epidemic of women behind bars in The U.S., U.K. and Australia. Economic status, race, and education remain factors for criminal activity and subsequent incarceration. In an age when we often congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, it’s important to be reminded that our enlightenment as a nation has not yet come to fruition.
Both the numbers and the images of women behind bars can feel overwhelming and discouraging, but the impact of media and audience interest in the plight of female prisoners is shedding a light on issues that may not otherwise be addressed. Several real issues have been explored in these series, including violence, abuse of solitary confinement, guards using their power to trade favors for sex and the rights of transgender inmates to receive prescribed hormone therapy while incarcerated.
Huffington Post blogger Sarah Pike declares:
The more we are exposed to the realities of life for female prisoners, the more we will be mobilized to work for fair treatment, reasonable sentencing and support for both prisoners and their families. If you’ve been inspired to make a difference for women prisoners, there are a variety of ways to become involved, including work with at-risk girls and women who may be able to avoid a life behind bars.
“Working as a tutor or mentor with at-risk girls or young women who have just become involved in the court system can help make an impact before it’s too late. Check with state organizations to find out how you can become involved in building self-esteem, cultivating social skills and improving educational performance. The Women’s Prison Association also offers a multitude of volunteer options that range from community involvement to active work with female prisoners and parolees.
“Thanks to recent television exposure, the national conversation about women in prison is louder and more active than ever before. While America is undeniably facing a challenge when it comes to the proliferation of female prisoners, there is hope that we will mobilize as a nation to curb the tide. Television may not be the answer, but it is certainly a catalyst for awareness, activism, and change.