You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d disappeared. I didn’t. Well, I did, but only into a low-internet period. May and June are always manically busy times in academia. I’ve not been keeping up at all on the femosphere so there may be quite a number of posts over the next few days. Or not. It all depends.
I have, however, been finding time for the second season of Orange is the New Black. I have two episodes to go and as well as enjoying a bloody good show, as always, I’ve also been mindful of its ground-breaking, transformative messages on women in prison. Here’s another take:
Can “Orange is the New Black” Change the Way Congress Thinks About Prisons? (bitch magazine)
When it burst onto the small screen last summer, Orange is the New Black quickly catapulted women’s incarceration into pop culture consciousness, becoming most-watched of Netflix’s series of 2013. While media has been buzzing about the all-at-once release of season two this Friday—speculating on plot development and characters—the real-life Piper Kerman has also been busy. Kerman, who was incarcerated for 13 months in Connecticut before writing the memoir that inspired the Netflix series, could have just basked in the show’s popularity. Instead, she’s been using her fame and media interest to bring attention to real issues facing incarcerated women.
Even before Orange is the New Black debuted, Kerman joined the board of the Women’s Prison Association, a 100-year-old advocacy and service provider organization for women caught in the New York legal system. Since the show’s debut, Kerman has been speaking at college campuses, community centers, and social justice organizations around the country about women’s prison issues. Her fame has also put her in a position to bring women’s prison issues before policymakers.
On February 25, 2014, Kerman testified at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on solitary confinement in Washington, DC. Unlike her fictional character, Kerman was never placed in solitary confinement. But she testified about the many women incarcerated alongside her who had:
“While I was in prison, I saw many women sent to the SHU for minor infractions such as moving around a housing unit during a count, refusing an order from a correctional officer, and possession of low-level contraband like small amounts of cash (which is largely useless in prison) or having women’s underwear from the outside rather than prison-issued underwear. All of these infractions drew at least 30 days in solitary. Sometimes women are sent to the SHU immediately upon their arrival in prison because there aren’t any open beds.”
As her testimony makes clear, these are hard issues to talk about. Most politicians would rather ignore the reality of the problems with the prison system than address them head-on and risk being seen as “soft on crime.” Orange is the New Black—and Kerman’s determined attempt to link the peoples’ interest in the fictional story to real women’s suffering—has helped get Americans talking about prison in a way few pieces of pop culture have. It’s also a way to get people talking about women in the prison system rather than focusing the conversations around men. It’s also a sad truth that politicians and Americans in general are more likely to listen to a celebrity telling them about prison conditions than someone who didn’t become famous after being incarcerated. To her credit, Kerman (unlike some other celebrities who have experienced short stints behind bars) has been using her platform to advocate for change.
Rest: Bitch Media.