Like the rest of America, I binged on the original Netflix series Orange is the New Black last week. At first I wasn’t interested because I’d read reviews of the memoir it’s based on and was sure it was more of the “nice white lady” schtick that permeates so much liberal discussion. But my friend convinced me to give it a try; after the first episode I was hooked.
I watched the whole series in a matter of days, propping my iPad on the counter to watch it while I made dinner and keeping it in one corner of my desktop monitor while I did mundane paperwork in another window.
I loved the show for the actors and I’m looking forward to the second season in part because the experience of mothers in prison—while touched on—was underrepresented. I’m hoping this is rectified as the series goes on.
I’m not sure how many women in the fictional Litchfield NY federal prison are moms but in the core group whose stories are told in episodes 1 to 13, only three actually claim parenthood—Sophia, Aleida and Dayanara’s roommate, Maria.
Maria gives birth on episode 8 and is wheeled back into her prison cubicle without her baby. That’s all we see of her experience although (spoiler alert) there’s reason to believe that in future episodes we’ll have the opportunity to learn more about pregnancy and motherhood in prison through the eyes of one of the main characters.
I counted 22 credited women on IMDB (internet movie database), which means that about 13% (or 18% if you’re going with that spoiler) of the women whose lives we’re witnessing on our small screen are mothers or about to be mothers. But according to the Women’s Prison Association’s 2007 numbers, nearly two-thirds of all the women in prison are parents. To put it even more starkly 1 in 359 kids in America are missing their mom because she’s behind bars.
With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that Sesame Street recently launched an “incarceration toolkit” for teachers and caregivers.
Like Maria, approximately 5- to 6% of women who enter the prison system are pregnant yet the prison system is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of those women and their babies. According to the activist group Birthing Behind Bars, when a woman goes into labor while incarcerated she is likely to be in handcuffs and ankle shackles. Stories like Diane’s, presented by ACLU Maryland, are not uncommon.
Once the woman has given birth, she must either find a relatives to care for the child, make an adoption plan, or her baby will be released into the foster care system. When families take guardianship, they do so without the subsidies that come with a foster placement. A biological grandmother, aunt or uncle is not able to get the money for food and clothing that comes to unrelated foster parents, which means some children are released to strangers not because their families don’t want them but because their families can’t afford their care.
The PBS documentary Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis, points out that most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses related to poverty and/or drug addiction and that unlike the majority of children whose fathers are in prison (who are usually left with their moms), kids whose moms are in prison are losing their primary caregiver.
In an effort to support and educate prisoners who are parents and their families, the organization Prisoners with Children’s Family Unity Project offers a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Parents, which emphasizes the importance of supporting relationships between mothers in prison and their children. To that end, Get on the Bus, a program of The Center for Restorative Justice Works, helps organize annual field trips for kids to visit moms and dads in prison.
Orange is the New Black has a terrific opportunity to shine a light on the experience of moms in prison and I hope they take it.
Art by Michael Lombardo