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What OITNB Says About Women’s Prisons & Human Dignity Featured Human Rights 

What OITNB Says About Women’s Prisons & Human Dignity

World (FEE) – There is an unfortunate generalization when it comes to public opinion toward the incarcerated population of this country. While the justice system has failed time and again to actually pursue justice, there is a misconception that all those forced to live behind bars rightfully belong there. Unfortunately, with the continuation of the war on drugs and other archaic policies that seek to punish victimless crimes, there are many people spending time locked away from society who truthfully never belonged there in the first place.

But even for those who admittedly made grave mistakes and as a result have been isolated from the rest society, that doesn’t negate the fact that they still are, in fact, human beings. But without understanding and a certain amount of empathy, the dignity of these incarcerated beings is severely jeopardized, which makes the potential for abuse within the system more rampant.

In the prison system, female-specific needs are not being met.

Image Source: Wikimedia, Netflix, Public Domain

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is back for its fifth season on Netflix and as always, the show has been a great bridge between those who are fortunate enough to live freely among the rest of society, and those who have, for one reason or another, been left at the mercy of the state. While the plight of the incarcerated population is one that should not be ignored, for females who find themselves behind bars, there is even more of a risk and potential for state abuse.

Meeting Female Needs

Unfortunately, when it comes to official standards and operating procedures for prisoners, there are typically no gender-specific rules set in place. That means there are many female-specific needs that are not being met and many are more comfortable turning a blind eye to this fact, rather than raising awareness. Or at least that was the case before OITNB became so popular on Netflix.

Prisoner dignity is an issue that is all too easy for bureaucrats and the unassuming public to push aside when there are more “pressing” issues at stake. For those more concerned with budget lines and keeping their jobs than the humanity of the alleged criminal class, incarcerated individuals become nothing more than a number. As a result, prisoner “needs” are limited only to what the state deems necessary to survival.

For females spending time behind bars, this general rule works against them and further strips each woman of her dignity as essential feminine hygiene needs are simply ignored and instead, the cheapest options are decided upon by bureaucrats, often men, who have no idea how to properly meet these needs, as they have never had to deal with them themselves.

One interesting perspective on display during this season of OITNB, however, is that even female bureaucrats become desensitized when they spend enough time in the system. Even though these women have firsthand knowledge of the needs of females, power corrupts, especially when there are incentives given for depriving these inmates of hygiene products.

One character on the show, who is a representative of a private prison corporation named Management and Correction Corporation (MCC) is coldly able to disassociate herself from the plight of incarcerated females when doing so saves money that is then given back to her in the form of a bonus. For example, it is unfortunately all too commonplace in correctional facilities to only allow female inmates access to outdated and uncomfortable hygiene supplies. To make matters worse, in many instances, inmates must pay for the privilege of using such products. If you cannot pay, as many can’t, you are left to your own devices.

This is something ignored by system elitists, like the show’s powerful MCC female representative, until she is caught in the midst of a prison riot and must pose as an inmate or risk being taken, hostage. After living among these women for a few days, she is forced to eat the almost inedible food, which, she herself signed off on in order to save a few pennies here and there. Suddenly, these women became human beings instead of mere numbers.

When female inmates have access to beauty supplies instances of violence drop significantly.

Image Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

In another storyline, a female prison guard, who was not able to disguise herself during the prisoner coup, is taken hostage and forced to live by the same rules she is paid to enforce. During a particularly grueling form of punishment, she pleads with the inmates to show her mercy and justifies her pleas by reminding one female that she once went above and beyond in order to sneak her a more modern feminine hygiene product.

This statement, unfortunately only serves to anger the revolutionary inmates further as a common need is portrayed as a benevolent act when any female on the outside would be offered her choice of products.

Cosmetics and Self-Esteem

Since many correctional facilities operate on gender-neutral guidelines, there are no allowances made for cosmetics or other beauty supplies. Sure, to those on the outside this would seem like a fair rule. After all, the taxpayer should not have to foot the bill for an inmate’s appearance. No one is claiming the state should provide these products, but there is much to be said for allowing incarcerated females to use items that make them feel better about themselves and help rebuild their dignity.

In fact, psychologists have actually found that when female inmates are allowed to access beauty supplies, instances of violence drop significantly. Psychological wisdom explains this phenomenon by saying that by raising each individual prisoner’s self-esteem by allowing them to look their best behind bars, they are less inclined to fight amongst each other.

Many of the protocols within prison walls are made specifically to break each inmate’s will and force them into unwavering obedience. This includes the degradation of their individuality by forcing them into standard issue uniforms and depriving them of the luxuries of outside life. For women, this includes hair and makeup products.

However, as OITNB highlights, inmates have become experts in survival because they have no other choice. This extends to all matters including doing all they can to preserve their dignity during their incarceration. As a result, many “tricks of the trade” so to speak have been utilized in order to maintain an appearance that gives each individual woman a sense of pride self-esteem.

Incarcerated females suffer disproportionately from past trauma. 

Throughout the series there have been references made to the lengths women will go in order to keep their physical dignity. This includes using whatever items they have access while incarcerated. For example, and this is really quite brilliant, many inmates have been resourceful and found ways to use food as makeup substitutes.

For example, jolly ranchers and other colorful candies have often been left near windows and melted down in order to make makeshift lipstick. Likewise, sharpies and colored pencils have used as eyeliner. Other tricks have included taking colorful newspaper ads and rubbing pink and red pigmented pages against cheekbones as blush. For those of us who are not living behind bars, makeup might seem like the least of a prisoner’s worries, but when all other forms of individuality are taken away from you, cosmetics offer a bit of welcome femininity in a dreary world.

When the state agrees to hear the inmates’ demands and each woman is daydreaming about what they want, the two who are most concerned with their appearance, fantasize about getting a real contour palette, instead of having to use kitchen spices as DIY makeup.

Addressing Past Trauma

It is an undeniable fact that incarcerated females suffer disproportionately from past trauma than the rest of the population. In fact, a great deal of these women have been subjected to years of sexual and physical abuse that have, in many regards, led to the digressions that landed them behind bars. Unfortunately, it is easier and more affordable to offer these women pharmaceutical solutions, rather than sufficient counseling to deal with their pasts.

While the decision to use pharmaceuticals should be a personal choice, these women are left with few additional options. When correctional facilities hire subpar counselors who are agents of the state, the trust factor between patient and doctor is severely limited. Without a true doctor-patient confidentiality contractual arrangement, what these women say can often be used against them.

Image Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

Additionally, without access to these types of counseling services, the routine security screenings, strip searches, for example, can be extremely traumatic to women who have dealt with extreme abuse throughout their lives. Such invasive acts can trigger flashbacks to which the prisoner has no immediate recourse. By perpetuating the harmful effects of prior trauma, these women will never “correct” the behavior they have been convicted of. Instead, it creates a worsening mental state and a grudge against the state and furthers the belief that their existence is not as valued as others.

Human Dignity Matters

As human beings subject to inherent flaws and concerned with our own personal obstacles, there is an unfortunate tendency to dismiss those who are behind bars. “They shouldn’t have committed a crime if they didn’t want to lose their freedoms,” some might say. But as overcriminalization has become rampant and it has been said that the average American unknowingly commits three felonies a day, the only real difference between a free individual and an incarcerated individual comes to down to whether or not you get caught.

Obviously, there are heinous crimes where incarceration seems like the best option, but these prisoners are still individuals born with the same capacity to make both right and wrong choices. As nonviolent and victimless crimes become more prevalent throughout our justice system, there is a vital need to ensure that these individuals are not deprived of their dignity as human beings. As OITNB points out, one mistake should not define a person for the rest of their life. Without dignity and respect for all human life, we cannot truly claim to be a civilized society.

This report was prepared by for FEE.

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