The popular Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” follows the story of female inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary, documenting their mistreatment by the correctional system. While the show’s plot is mostly fictional, the struggles portrayed are the harsh reality for the 148,200 women in state and federal prisons across the U.S.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D) have taken a step toward improving the rights of female inmates by introducing the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. This bill, if passed, will address the unjust conditions women endure in the prison system and will require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adjust its guidelines.
“We in the United States of America unfortunately have an incarceration problem with women that is very different than that of men,” Booker said, and he is right.
Mother Jones reports the number of women entering prison is increasing at its highest rate, and women’s rights need to stop being overlooked by the penitentiary system.
While both men and women are mistreated within the justice system, women are systemically subjected to particularly striking offenses due to their gender.
One of the many issues female inmates face is acquiring feminine hygiene products. While this is a basic human right, The Guardian reports that approximately 80 percent of inmates cannot afford products like sanitary pads or tampons because they are paid so poorly.
“The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents,” according to a study conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Meanwhile, a box of eight tampons can cost up to $4.23, according to New York Magazine.
The pricing of these products relative to incarcerated women’s low wages is not only a financial strategy, but a way for the prison to keep control of inmates. Keeping products out of reach for inmates reminds them that they are inferior to guards when they must ask for something.
In addition to disregarding women’s physical well-being, the corrections system also discards their mental health concerns. A survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 67.9 percent of women in prison struggle with mental disorders as opposed to only 40.8 percent of men.
Despite this disparity, the prison system’s lacking health care department does not differentiate between mental health care for women and men, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues.
To make matters worse, prison guards who commonly abuse female inmates tend to go unpunished.
USA Amnesty International reports that female inmates are often coerced by guards to perform inappropriate acts in return for commissary items like tampons or pads. However, the human rights organization also reports that since 1992, only seven guards have been prosecuted on charges of assault against female inmates.
Typically, Amnesty expounds, if a guard is found mistreating a female inmate, instead of being punished they are merely transferred to a different prison. Needless to say, this does more to protect abusers than to keep women safe.
There is also a gender bias in the assessment of female inmates’ needs. Mother Jones reports that when the quality of inmate services is measured, when living conditions are studied or when general risk assessments are made, they are only tested in relation to male subjects. This bias can cause female inmates’ necessities to be discounted, leading prisons to be structured around a single model: the male model.
In its entirety, our justice system is broken and in desperate need of not just change, but thorough reform. A great place to start would be the provision of fair and equal treatment for all inmates, regardless of their gender.
Samantha Moffett is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.