By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“I have been here for less than two weeks. I have been starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened, and called Taylor Swift,” Orange is the New Black character Piper Chapman reveals about the beginning of her prison life. Though the Netflix series was loosely based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, this quote offers a chillingly accurate approximation of the reality for women in prison. Except for them, there’s no comic relief.
When the umbrella term “War on Drugs” was coined by President Nixon, it triggered the implementation of draconian punishments for low-level crimes, casting an ever-widening net for the poor and underprivileged to become ensnared in. Since then, some low-income women fallen victim to addiction have turned to drug operations by loose circumstance or as their only viable means of economic survival. Such women, after being caught, now face decades of imprisonment.
The number of women behind bars has climbed from around 12,000 in 1980 to nearly 113,000 in 2010, a staggering 800 percent increase over three decades, which is nearly twice as much as the statistical growth rate for incarcerated men. Black and Hispanic women are disproportionately represented in this population, one third of which are incarcerated for non-violent drug related crimes.
“There’s nobody in my community that doesn’t have somebody that’s been incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system. It just doesn’t happen in poor black communities” says Andrea Goode-James, prison activist and author of Upper Bunkies Unite – And Other Thoughts on Mass Incarceration, in regards to her hometown in Roxbury, MA.
Goode-James was a criminal defense attorney that worked nearly all pro-bono to defend the struggling people of Roxbury against unjust “War on Drugs” charges. All the while she practiced real estate law on the side to remain financially stable.
When the real estate crisis hit though, she committed wire fraud by misappropriating money from her bank clients in an effort to stop the families around her from losing their homes. Regardless of intentions, Goode-James recognized her mistake and turned herself in. She was de-barred and served 24 months at the Danbury Correctional Facility for Women, in Connecticut.
Goode-James describes Danbury as a “dehumanizing warehouse” full of incarcerated women.
“If someone were to peel the roof off of C-dorm, where I was serving, we were packed in there like a slave ship. We were piled on top of each other, two women at a time, in many, many rows. The prison was old, inadequate, and overcrowded.”
The lack of privacy in these conditions leads to real or perceived threats, often by guards, and there are countless reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual extortion. Overcrowding also leads to delays of medical care, failure to report serious illnesses, and lack of treatment for substance abuse. Even more shocking, incarcerated women are subjected to medical extremities, like shackling during pregnancy, and forced sterilization.
One woman who spoke with BTR experienced nearly all of these injustices. Savanna Stokely has been incarcerated various times for low-level crimes. Throughout her sentences, she’s grappled with the loss of a son to gun violence, endured shackles as she attended his funeral, experienced an ectopic pregnancy that remained undiagnosed for months, and more.
“In my latest experience, I was subjected to two years’ worth of abuse of power, where I was constantly sexually violated through illegal strip search procedures,” says Stokely. “I was locked in [solitary confinement] for 21 days in total on two different occasions because I was fervently trying to exercise my rights against this type of action, where the officer was groping my private areas. Also, because I was giving extra bread to a woman who was nine months pregnant.”
The abuse in prison extends beyond physical pain and discomfort, and far beyond the dramatic sadness popularized by Orange is the New Black.
“There’s no way to tell what prison a woman will end up in, and often she is hundreds of miles away from her home,” Victoria Law, a prison activist, journalist, and author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women explains.
“For an impoverished family, that trip is economically unfeasible. I know one woman who went on a 17-day hunger strike to protest not being transferred to a prison that her two young children could visit. They put her in solitary, where she continued her strike,” says Law. “They rushed her to the hospital when her health failed, treated her, returned her to the prison, back to solitary, where she continued her strike for 32 days more. In response to that, finally, she was placed in a prison three hundred miles from her family’s home. It didn’t matter, it was still too far.”
Because two thirds of women incarcerated are mothers, and nearly 75 percent of them are primary caregivers, their confused children often turn to the same illicit activities that took their parents away from them as a means of survival. A vicious cycle ensues.
“At Danbury, there were four phones for 214 women. Standing in line…you knew everybody’s business,” Goode-James recalls. “You heard the painful stuff these children were going through while their mothers were packed away for these ridiculously long sentences, and it was just overwhelming. They would hang up the phone and become inconsolable.”
In 2010, the 100:1 sentencing disparity between the trafficking or possession of crack cocaine versus that of powder-cocaine was dispelled by the Obama Administration; and in August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder lobbied for sentencing reform to help alleviate the burden for low-level offenders. Also that month, the “stop-and-frisk” policy, which allowed New York police to stop suspicious looking people on the street and search them for concealed weapons, was ruled unconstitutional.
Though these are positive steps, Law says the problems that cause incarceration in the first place remain unsolved.
“The War on Drugs has never addressed the overwhelming amount of violence and abuse that low-income women face from society and interpersonally, the feminization of poverty and the 1996 reform that resulted in the pushing of women off of welfare, and the huge wage gap between men and women, especially women of color.”
One organization that’s committed to improving the lives of incarcerated women and taking preventative measures against future incarcerations is WORTH, where Law volunteers and Stokely currently works on the Birthing Behind Bars campaign, attempting to end the shackling of women during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery.
Another organization is Goode-James’s JusticeAsHealing, which purposes at-home alternatives to incarceration.
“Unfortunately, current government reforms haven’t provided any relief to people who are already prisoners of the drug war, who are serving very harsh sentences because they were someone’s girlfriend or wife or sister. The women who I left in that prison, who are serving on average a 10-year mandatory minimum, who won’t see their children grow up,” she says. “That’s what’s criminal to me.”