Victoria Law's Blog

The Real-Life Stories Behind ‘Orange Is the New Black’

by Holly Eagleson
June 12th, 2014

Once you’ve binged your way through Season 2, get on these true tales of life behind bars stat.

(Photo: Orange Is the New Black/Youtube)Caution: Spoilers ahead!

Can we all agree that Orange Is the New Black seriously upped its game with Season 2? From the masterful storytelling (how jaw-dropping was Morello’s backstory reveal?) to the unexpected moments of hilarity (pedal to the metal, Rosa!), we’re majorly missing the ladies at Litchfield already.  

Rather than wallow in OITNB withdrawal, why not seek out a few books and movies about the real-life stories of female prisoners? After all, you’ve got tiiiiime until Season 3. And schooling yourself on the human rights issues plaguing the prison system seems like the right thing to do if you’ve only been introduced to them through entertainment.

We put together a list of indispensable works about women in prison with the help of Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggle for Incarcerated Women, and mimi lok, cofounder and executive director of Voices of Witness, a nonprofit that publishes oral histories of human rights crises, including Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives From Women’s Prisons. Piper Kerman, activist and the real-life inspiration for OITNB’s Piper Chapman, calls Inside This Place “essential reading,” and we’d agree. It’s a collection of moving essays by inmates that detail the indignities women experience before incarceration and the new ones they confront in jail, such as forced sterilization and physical and sexual abuse by staff. Law’s work is a must-read for anyone interested in how activism happens within the prison system—think the real-life Sosos and Sister Ingallses. Sentences Served: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Writer and Others Talk Prison Life

Once you’ve read those two, dive into these poignant works and cool projects that are organized by OITNB storyline. Some can be tackled during a lunch break. They’ll all change the way you look at the women’s prison system.

1. If you live for OITNB’s flashbacks to characters’ pasts, watch What I Want My Words to Do to You.

With its deft vignettes, OITNB chips away at the idea that inmates can be only perpetrators or victims—everyone is a bit of both. This documentary does the same by profiling playwright and activist Eve Ensler’s writing workshop for female prisoners inside New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Fifteen women, most doing time for murder, employ the power of the pen to reveal their compelling personal histories. At the close of the film, their stories are performed by celebrities such as Glenn Close, Rosie Perez, and Marisa Tomei. Though Ensler’s project was just one of many similar writing programs across the country, lok likes how it emphasizes community-building inside prisons. “It shows the process of women connecting with their own stories and developing their sense of agency over them, then being given a platform through the readings,” lok said.

2. If you felt for Miss Rosa’s struggle with health issues, watch Charisse Shumate: Fighting for Our Lives.

When Rosa was denied a potentially lifesaving treatment for ovarian cancer, she went out on her own badass terms. The vast majority of terminally ill women in the prison system aren’t so lucky. This 37-minute film looks at one such prisoner, Californian Charisse Shumate, who battled sickle-cell anemia, hepatitis C, and cancer while lobbying the system for better health care and compassionate release of terminally ill inmates. Her valiant fight for sick prisoners, as well as battered women, is an extraordinary story you won’t soon forget.

3. If you worry what will become of Daya and Bennett’s baby, check out Too Much Time: Women in Prison, by Jane Evelyn Atwood.

Caputo’s warning to Bennett that Daya could birth her child in shackles wasn’t an idle threat. That particular ignominy happens to incarcerated women worldwide all the time. It’s documented, along with many other startling abuses, in this remarkable book of photo essays recommended by Law. “You see in stark black and white all the horrifying aspects of prison life: pregnant women giving birth while handcuffed, self-mutilation, male guards strip-searching women,” Law said. Even the depictions of day-to-day routines in prison provoke alarm. “Seeing male guards able to frisk women, women getting dressed after a strip search, or women watching their families walk out of the visiting room really illustrate the horrors that prison life inflicts on people as a matter of course,” Law said.

4. If you were outraged by Gloria’s abusive boyfriend, watch Sins by Silence.

While Gloria didn’t end up at Litchfield for harming her violent partner, prison time is an inevitability for many battered women who are pushed to the brink and act in self-defense. This film explores the stories of women who kill their abusive husbands, profiling one prisoner-led organization, Convicted Women Against Abuse, that supports abused women on the inside. It sheds light on the disproportionately long sentences for women who kill violent partners and why many battered women are unable to use their history as a defense. It may sound disheartening, but there’s a happy ending: The doc spurred two California laws that protect abused women as they move through the justice system.

5. If Healy’s vile treatment of lesbians infuriates you, watch Out in the Night.

This documentary making the rounds on the festival circuit explores what happened when four African American lesbians fought back after being attacked for spurning a man’s advances. The incident, which took place in New York City’s West Village in 2006, spawned a media circus and sobriquets like “Gang of Killer Lesbians.” Despite their claims of self-defense, the women were convicted for assault and attempted murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. “The movie unpacks who has the right to self-defense, what would have happened to these women if they were white or hadn’t been poor, and looks at some of the prison conditions,” says Law. “People’s moms die and they’re not allowed to go to the funeral. Another woman finds out the state has taken custody of her child while she’s inside.”

Also worth keeping on your radar is the forthcoming documentary, FREE CeCe, produced by OITNB’s Laverne Cox, who plays trans inmate Sophia. It’s the story of Cece McDonald, a trans woman who was convicted of accidentally stabbing a man who attacked her outside a Minneapolis bar in 2011 and was sentenced to serve time in a men’s prison. The film zeroes in on controversial correctional practices with trans prisoners, like isolating them from the prison population by placing them in solitary confinement and denying hormone therapy.

6. If you’d love to read a real-life version of Litchfield’s The Big House Bugle newsletter, check out the Women + Prison project.

lok highly recommends this website, installation, and zine created by incarcerated women. “It’s really nicely designed—not what one might expect from a prison zine,” lok said. “I love the fact that the site not only gives women a creative writing outlet and offers human rights reports, but it has a frame of reference broader than just the US, highlighting imprisoned Iraqi women, for example.”

Law points to The Fire Inside as another great read that gives incarcerated women a megaphone to the outside. A grassroots newsletter produced by the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, it features heart-wrenching articles and poems that explain what it’s like to be locked away from your community and family. “Because you hear directly from the women themselves, it’s a great resource for people to start watching [OITNB] and wonder, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How accurately does this show reflect what goes on inside women in prison?’ ” Law said.

7. If embezzling prison head Natalie Figueroa made you mad as hell, read Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Not every prison warden is criminally mendacious like Fig. But with the massive growth of the U.S. prison population (up a whopping 450 percent since 1980), more stakeholders than ever stand to benefit from the exploding prison-industrial complex. Gilmore trains her eye on California and the funds necessary to house its ballooning inmate population. She also examines how “three strikes” laws and other forms of punitive justice feed the need for more correctional facilities. Though it’s more of an academic work, Golden Gulag is an intriguing glimpse into the large-scale systems that transform human beings into a profitable, disposable population.

8. If you railed against prison conditions right along with the hunger strikers, watch this video about Riverhead Jail.

This Long Island, N.Y., correctional facility is one of the real-world settings for some OITNB scenes. Art seems to imitate life. Overcrowding, bathrooms overflowing with human waste, vermin, and black mold are just a few of the problems reportedly plaguing detainees, many of whom are low-level offenders stuck at Riverhead simply because they’re too poor to afford bail. Conditions are allegedly so deplorable that the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County two years ago. The NYCLU recently launched a campaign called #HumanityIstheNewBlack to bring attention to conditions at Riverhead and nearby Yaphank Correctional Facility. In her latest edition of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggle of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2012), Victoria Law offers us a whole-hearted chronicle of despair and resistance in the modern prison industry. It is worth a good read by anyone interested in the sociology of American life, as well as any radical with friends or comrades behind bars. Law’s accounts of women prisoners taking action are so inspirational that you will never be the same after reading them.

With an approach resembling the old underground chronicles of the Soviet samizdat press, Resistance Behind Bars carries no piece of frivolity in its tight, hard-hitting prose. Law moves from facts to facts, drawing out broad truths about the prison industry’s systematic oppression of women throughout the United States of America. What we find is rampant sexual abuse, neglect, and manipulation—the holding of women in shameful conditions where prison becomes an almost airtight container for misogyny and patriarchy. But there is hope in resistance.

Law’s work is crucial, because the greatest recent works on the prison industry (for instance, Ruth Gilmore Wilson’s Golden Gulag, Micelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the Let Freedom Ring anthology) are more focused on male prisoners. “Many activist-oriented publications mirror the mainstream media’s masculinization of prisons and prisoners, contributing to the invisibility of women behind bars,” states Law. “Because they receive much less attention than their male counterparts, women in prison receive much less support from both individual activists and prisoner rights groups.”

By revealing the obscured facts of prisoners’ oppression, Resistance Behind Bars exposes immediately the need for such a work. During an investigation of two women’s prisons in Michigan in 1994, the Justice Department found that “nearly every woman… interviewed reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards,” while a 1996 Human Rights Watch report exposes commonplace reprisals of guards against women who complain. In one mind-blowing statistic, Law explains, “[i]n both men’s and women’s prisons, prisoners are more likely to experience sexual violence at the hands of prison staff than from their fellow prisoners.

In his vital text The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Victoria Law’s impressive chronicle opens the heart of humanity with stories of resistance—stories of love and patience more than rage and riot, which are most commonly associated with prison resistance.

Law’s intensive investigations obviate exhaustive knowledge of the day-to-day situations of resistance, such as the spreading of information, the slow motion of court cases, and the relationships of people involved. She discusses the surges of women’s movements behind bars, the media, communications, and alliances formed between heroic women willing to risk their bodies and their access to others for mutual aid and basic rights. Law notes the critical and lasting impact of magazines like Sojourner: A Women’s Forum, which helps women resist “feeling as if their words, thoughts and actions are meaningless. For these women, having their words and thoughts taken seriously is, in and of itself, a major achievement.” Media also presents “an act of subversion against both their own lack of agency and the isolating effects of prison.”

So much of the struggle against oppressive conditions takes place in the battle for information. Information being shared between people, on personal levels as well as through magazines, leads to liberation. One crucial chapter in Resistance Behind Bars illustrates this point through a discussion about detention facilities and women subject to incarceration awaiting deportation. Many of these women do not speak English, yet prison officials often place them among English speaking populations without any translators. The ability of prisoners to then work together to create unity beyond the language gap indicates the compassion and tender, careful relationship-building that accompanies being together in prison.

In a welcome addition to the second edition of Resistance Behind Bars, Law presents a stirring analysis of incarcerated trans people. Authorities place trans people in prisons according to their sexual organs at birth, a practice which leads directly to increased abuse and alienation. In one tragic example, Dee Farmer, a trans woman, was placed in Terre Haute (an institution that will ring a bell for ecodefense activist), where she was repeatedly beaten, raped, and infected with HIV. Trans men in women’s prisons have traditionally been confronted with abuse from guards, including even forced segregation. Cis-privilege, in general, is reified within the patriarchal container by the guards. Law declares, “[n]arratives of transgender, gender variant and intersex people’s resistance in prisons are rare. This should not be interpreted to mean that they do not resist prison abuses. Instead, researchers, activists, and abolitionists should see the conspicuous absence of transgender, gender variant and intersex stories of resistance behind bars as a challenge to dig further, figure out why such tales are absent and do what isneeded to both end the silence and support their struggles.”

Resistance Behind Bars is replete with such harrowing stories of women acting out of their own agency, against assault and neglect, with little tools to win the fight. One example is that of Stacy Barker, whose successful lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections led to an onslaught of cell searches yielding “contraband violations” for iron pills and Ibuprofen. When the corrections officials used the violations to keep Barker from visiting her daughter, she joined a large suit against the regulations keeping mothers from their children—and won.

Much of women’s resistance in prison stems from letter writing campaigns, newsletters, and law suits. These efforts are forwarded by education efforts behind bars. Law discusses the awesome work of Marcia Bunney, who used her job in the prison library to teach herself law, eventually becoming one of five prisoner representatives of the National Steering Committee of the National Lawyers’ Guild’s Prison Law Project. The classes taught behind bars, Law shows, are frequently degrading, humiliating, and repressive, but offer rewards for those who can work through the system.

Even working through the system can bring new roadblocks, however. A request for medical treatment can bring unwanted reactions from authorities, for instance. “Women in prison face not only medical neglect and malpractice,” writes Law, “but also retaliation from the prison administration should they advocate for themselves and demand adequate treatment.”

Underlying the lack of care is a basic lack of counseling and information available to prisoners with AIDS and hepatitis C, but Law notes that prisoners team together to pass on their knowledge, speak out, file lawsuits, and make their daily lives livable. One example is that of Charisse Shumate, whose work with other inmates with sickle-cell anemia led to a class-action lawsuit, Schumate v. Wilson, that resulted in preventative care (although Shumate would succumb to her illness before the case was settled).

In the seminal In Russian and French Prisons, Peter Kropotkin declares, “No autocracy can be imagined without its Tower or Bastille.” The symbol of the central prison, and the possibility of its rupture, makes history. The U.S., with its tentacle-like prison industry complex provides multiple histories of oppression and autocracy. Law shows that much of the most important work to benefit prisoners comes from the prisoners themselves, in a heroic movement with support groups around the world working to fight the system. The hard task abolishing the prison industry is upon us, and it builds from the kind basic communication of facts and truths presented in Resistance Behind Bars—this is a method steeped in the feminist tradition, and it is one worth taking up at once.

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