The Women’s Prison Issues to Watch for in ‘Orange is the New Black’

By Jamilah King Jun 04, 2014

There are currently more than 200,000 women behind bars in the United States and more than one million on probation and parole, according to the ACLU. Their stories rarely make headlines or garner sympathy. But thanks to Netflix’s "Orange is the New Black," the second season of which starts on Friday, more people than ever are paying attention. 

While the show is far from perfect, it’s done what no other widely watched television show in American history has managed to do: tell the stories of women prisoners–many of whom are of color–who are incarcerated in the United States. Here’s where those semi-fictionalized dramas meet the real world:

Recidivism: Fun-loving Taystee is back in prison for Season 2. And that’s no surprise: After being released with big plans of drinking margaritas and spending time with her cousins, she met the harsh reality of life on the outside. She slept on an aunt’s floor and couldn’t find a job to make the money she owned in restitution. Overall, three in every four former prisoners are re-arrested within five years of their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And while the rates are slightly lower for female inmates than their male counterparts, their barriers are often the same: poor jobs prospects and unstable housing.

Mental healthcare: Main character Piper Chapman snaps at the end of the first season, assaulting Pensatucky who’d been taunting her and landing in solitary confinement. Season 2 picks up after Piper’s month in the hole but it’s unclear what, if any, treatment she gets. What, if any, resources are available to women in such a stressful environment? If recent real-life reports are to be believed, the answer is not many. Just last week, a federal court in California found that care for the state’s most severely mentally ill inmates is haphazard, inadequate and the system itself is understaffed.

Pregnancy behind bars: One of the most captivating story lines of Season 1 was the illicit romance between inmate Daya and corrections officer Bennett. Despite the obvious power imbalance between prisoners and corrections officers, their relationship came off as gentle and sweet. And that might even be the case when Daya delivers their baby behind bars. But in 33 states, pregnant inmates, including women being held exclusively for immigration-related offenses, can be shackled to beds while they give birth. The restraints are ostensibly used to protect nearby staff during the deliveries, but since New York City jails restricted the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in 1990, there have been no reported incidents of escape or harm to medical staff, according to the ACLU

Healthcare for trans women: Laverne Cox has become the show’s breakout star, and for good reason. Her character, Sophia, is one of the show’s best, and her Season 1 storyline largely revolves around her fight to secure the proper dose of hormones she needed from medical staff. In a letter issued to the Georgia State Department of Corrections, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that prison officials who do not give provide hormone treatments to transgender inmates are "guilty of torture." That letter centered on the story of Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman who received hormone treatment for nearly two decades before entering the prison system after violating her probation. The consequences can be severe for people who abruptly stop hormone treatment, according to the letter; they suffer hot flashes, dizziness, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. "No one would deny a diabetic prisoner insulin," said Diamond. "No one would sentence a person to a gender change. But because I am transgender, I am denied basic medical care and forced to change gender. Nobody should be sentenced to torture like this."