OITNB: The Darker Side of Women’s Penitentiaries

An insight into the problems with women’s prisons and why ‘gangs’ are prevalent throughout.

Arguably one of the most talked about shows on Netflix, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ has drawn in viewers from all across the country; the premiere of season 4, itself, drew in more than 4 million viewers in the first 72 hours that it was available to stream. Many see it as another ‘dramedy’, a show that tells serious stories with a lighthearted tone. However, OITNB has more to teach society than most realize.

I remember watching OITNB for the first time as a high school student. I was a young women going to private school in an upper middle class area. The first time I watched it I felt absolute shock.

At the time I didn’t realize that the effect the show would have on me, at first I was blown away by the segregation that seemed to appear within the show. As I continued to watch I grew offended and even, at times, uncomfortable by the blatant racism and prejudice that the characters experienced.

Initially, I saw the show as an over-exaggeration, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to see why each character in the show acts as she does.

One of the most common perpetrators of violence against women are other women. The show portrays this in each episode. Women betraying one another and using physical force to intimidate. So the real question is, why? Why do women who are constantly oppressed and subjected to harsh treatment continue to pass that treatment along to their counterparts?

The simplest answer is that they are doing what they can to survive.

Throughout history prisons have generally been gendered as male. This means that far less attention is paid to institutions housing females.

Male punishment was linked ideologically to penitence and reform. The very forfeiture of rights and liberties implied that with self-reflection, religious study, and work, male convicts could achieve redemption and could recover these rights and liberties. However, since women were not acknowledged as securely in possession of these rights, they were not eligible to participate in this process of redemption. — Angela Davis (Are Prisons Obsolete?)

With less of a focus on reform, and a larger focus on punishment, I’m led to believe one thing — women are not worth as much to the state as a man is. This is not only apparent from the lack of reform programs but also from the treatment of the prisoners by the correctional staff.

Being stripped of your rights allows for subsequent strip searches whenever they are deemed necessary by prison guards. A huge part of strips searches for women involves the search of their vaginal cavity as well. However, the degradation does not stop there. In 2014, about 15% of women reported having been sexually assaulted in prison. 98% of these assaults are carried out by staff at the prisons.

Women are not only raped but coerced and intimidated into sexual favors for the guards, as well.

As OITNB viewers probably remember, in season three, Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett is raped by CO Coates. At the end of the day, she knows that, sadly, it will be her word against his. Because of this, the assault is never reported.

When many think of the physical and sexual abuse that happens to women daily they are disgusted. But should that abuse be any less repulsive if the women who it is being enacted upon is in a prison jumpsuit?

When the statistics of abuse inside the prison system are put together, it becomes more and more apparent why the women participate in a gang oriented life-style. They do not feel safe around the guards. Add to that a lack of resources and reform programs, and one can see how these women are made to feel inferior to the rest of society.

In addition to the abuse, there is a lack of proper care and nutrition. Most prisons are tasked with spending less than $1 per meal per prisoner. This often results in fighting over and stealing what is available to them.

Thus, these women only have their fellow inmates to trust and rely on. Nine times out of ten people feel safer being part of a collective. When it comes down to it, it’s impossible for these gangs within the prison system to work together because there simply are not enough resources to go around. This is seen time and time again through the OITNB characters who are in a never ending war over food, prison jobs, and a better standard of life within Litchfield.

In a system where only a few can get ahead, wouldn’t you fight to be on top as well?