“When it takes a white woman going to prison to raise the issue of women in prison #solidarityisforwhitewomen.” One of my favorite Twitter trends this summer, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, called out the feminist movement for frequently excluding women of color from its discourse. The aforementioned tweet refers to “Orange is the New Black,” Netflix’s hit original series based on an autobiography of Piper Kerman’s time in federal prison, a show that most likely would not have been produced without a white protagonist.
That is the state of affairs in Hollywood. While critics swarming the Internet have harped on that point, the fact that a show features so many women of color, queer folks of color and a realistic transgender character is, white protagonist or not, highly commendable.
The series is centered on Piper Chapman, a yuppie woman in her 30s who is sent to federal prison on an old drug crime charge for transporting money for her ex-girlfriend.
According to the Women’s Prison Association, the female prison population has soared by 835 percent over the last 30 years, while the male prison population rose by 416 percent. Like Piper, more than two-thirds of women in prison are convicted of nonviolent offences, such as drug-related crimes.
I tried calling around, but the people working on this social issue either don’t watch television or are too busy working on their cause because apparently no office wants to answer its phones. Carole Seligman, office manager of Prison Radio, a production studio aiming to challenge unjust incarceration practices, was kind enough to speak to me.
“This country is notorious for not granting compassionate release to prisoners with terminal illnesses who are elderly and are dying and denied to die at home,” Seligman said, referring specifically to the case of Lynne Stewart, a 74-year-old political prisoner dying of cancer in federal prison.
“Orange is the New Black” features elderly characters, such as the no-nonsense, badass Miss Claudette, but they serve as background characters to their more attractive, younger counterparts.
“The incarceration of men is the central narrative of prisons in the United States,” said Doug Taylor, a UC Berkeley re-entry student in his senior year.
He grew up watching “dozens of (his) friends get locked away … Women in prison face challenges that are different than those of men in prison, but the institution of incarceration tends to treat the sentence inflexibly. A sentence is a sentence, whether or not there are children waiting for the mother outside.”
Taylor is correct in that nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers. The Sentencing Project reports that women can be shackled during childbirth and labor in all but 13 states. This is the aspect of women in prison that the show does the worst job of portraying — two characters have to contemplate childbirth while in prison, but none of the women really mention parental obligations on the other side.
But can we really expect “Orange Is the New Black” to cover all the issues surrounding women in prison within the confines of 13 hour-long episodes? Is it the responsibility of the showrunners to accurately portray every detail, whether it means giving more screen time to the elderly characters or highlighting the repercussions on external family members for more characters?
I would say yes. All details matter, and what makes for the most realistic representations is art steeped in minutiae (and I would hardly call elderly women or mothers minutiae).
Not enough time or not enough money is hardly an excuse. Not enough knowledge? There are more than 200,000 women in prison today. That’s plenty.