Six summers ago, Netflix introduced 105 million people to a group of women they typically sought to avoid—drug dealers, murderers, car thieves and more.
Now one of the most popular shows on the channel, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has made magic with its ability to humanize dastardly acts by providing backstory to crime—making it seem less like behavioral deviance and more like the understandable result of poverty, poor education, mental illness and misogyny. In many ways, Orange is the New Black turned the “bad girl” into folklore.
But the trope of the deviant and inhumane female prisoner is just one of the myths OITNB was able to bust.
Here are four more myths about this population—
Myth #1: Incarcerated Women Don’t Fight Back
Many have heard of the 1971 Attica’s riot, where male prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, seized control of the prison to fight for improved living conditions, resulting in 39 deaths and 89 injuries.
But a richer history of resistance resides in women’s prisons—and their activism is often less violent, more peaceful and more effective than that of their male counterparts.
Many are unfamiliar with the August Rebellion, an uprising at all-female Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in August of 1974. After one inmate, Carol Crooks, successfully sued for dismal conditions while in solitary confinement—like being stripped and not even provided with a bed to sleep on—guards beat her in retaliation, “dragging her down the hallway, like a rag, and literally throwing her down … concrete steps,” according to an eyewitness account.
In response, the women took over the prison for a few hours, demanding justice for Crooks and even inviting the press to come to the prison to view the conditions for themselves. Unlike Attica, no one was killed in the August Rebellion—but the uprising’s impact was significant. It brought about real changes to how women in prison are treated, such as due process before placing them in restrictive housing conditions, and a binding pledge signed by prison officials pledging to conduct disciplinary proceedings fairly.
Incarcerated women have resisted institutional abuse more recently, too. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama was rife with sexual abuse, with women trading sex acts for the hygiene and menstrual products withheld from them. In an example of almost impossible organizing and the power of storytelling, women at the prison pushed back on severely dehumanizing conditions in 2014 by whistleblowing on their deplorable conditions. 233 women at Tutwiler Prison wrote letters of complaint to the Department of Justice and exposed over 18 years of abuse—forcing the federal government to intervene by directing the governor of Alabama to fix its prisons.
And now the Lowell Correctional Institution in Central Florida—where female inmates have complained for years about sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted by corrections officers—is under investigation. It’s likely that these women’s stands—spurred on by Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald reporter who reopened the Epstein case that broke earlier this month—paved the way to any reform that will be achieved in the Sunshine State.
‘Change comes from within’ isn’t just a self-help adage: The women inside prisons have been the engine of the beneficial policy changes that affect them.
Myth #2: The Small Number of Women in Prison Makes Their Population Easier to Help
Less than 10 person of inmates are women which, in theory, should make them easier to help—more amenable to reform. But in reality, policies often boomerang on female prisoners, since many are not specifically designed for them.
California’s Public Safety Realignment initiative—the state of California’s effort to reduce its state prison population by shifting prison inmates to county jails—has been worse for women than for men. California’s decarceration efforts ended up releasing female inmates in such numbers that the state closed a women’s prison. Then they crammed the remaining women into an existing prison. So while the overcrowding for men was alleviated, for women it became worse.
The criminal justice reform movement’s insistence on reduced sentences is wise, but it has also unfortunately backfired on women. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, almost half of all of the 219,000 incarcerated women are in jail—as opposed to prison. Jail conditions are known to be far worse than prisons, for they lack rehabilitative programming and the living conditions are much harsher. (For comparison, only 24 percent of incarcerated men are kept in jail.)
Myth #3: White Women Have It Easier
It’s no secret that racial disparities plague the criminal system. The narrative plays out time and time again when wealthier white men, arrested for serious crimes, can afford and pay the high bonds offenses—while higher numbers of Black men remain incarcerated.
Between 2000 and 2016, Black women were imprisoned at about 100 per 100,000 people—half of what it was between 1982 and 2000. But this sliding rate is less evidence of fair treatment and more proof of just how over-incarcerated Black women were and are. For comparison, one in every 300 Black women is incarcerated—compared to about one in every 1,099 of their white counterparts.
These declining rate of Black female confinement means white women are now the fastest-growing correctional population, and their rate of incarceration has increased consistently over the entire period from 1980 to 2016.
To some, this shift may smack of fairness and equality—but evening out racial disparities by throwing more white women in prison is only more dehumanizing. The increasing rate of white women getting locked up reduces the toll of mass incarceration to numbers, when it’s really an issue of dignity and freedom.
Myth #4: Incarcerated Women are Bad Mothers
81 percent of respondents in a survey of incarcerated women published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reported being mothers. Many wonder how a mother could risk separation from her children by committing a crime.
But “most women in prison should not automatically be considered bad mothers,” says Emily Halter, a former fellow at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Perhaps if these mothers received treatment, rather than a prison sentence, they could be fit to parent.”
Most incarcerated mothers are the primary caretakers of their children and are economically marginalized. These two factors explain why women are overrepresented amongst the population that commits survival crimes—like dealing drugs, selling sex for drugs, bad checks, welfare fraud, credit card abuse and larcenies.
Even if women erred in judgment in committing a crime, it’s incarceration that continues to tear at the parent-child connection—not the mother’s parenting skills. 49 percent of incarcerated mothers polled reported that they had no visits with their children, and another 27 percent said they see their children once per year or less. More than two-thirds of incarcerated mothers whose maternal bond is strained by carceral conditions.
Experts and scholars argue prison may just be an extension of state interference with mothering by poor women of color. According to lawyers at the Human Rights Program at Justice Now in Oakland, separating mothers and children is “a particularly egregious form of government interference in family life, which could be avoided through the use of alternative sentencing procedures.”
The activist and author of the book that inspired the OITNB series, Piper Kerman, testified at a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security this month: “I can assure you there is no institution more hierarchical, dominance-oriented, patriarchal and based on the threat and promise of violence than an American prison. This is not an accident; it is by design.”
The fact that women in prison have been misunderstood for so long isn’t an oversight. The prison industrial complex benefitted from these myths in that they justified the trauma wrought on so many women. The misinformation spread has helped this system prosper—financially and morally. It’s time we get educated and find empathy for incarcerated women.