What 'Orange Is the New Black' Gets Right in Its Portrayal of Women Prisoners

The Netflix show Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) was ground-breaking in many ways, the foremost being how it humanised women prisoners and their struggles. Although the show is set in upstate New York, the issue of prisoners’ fundamental rights are universal.

In India, the question recently received some attention when three law students filed a petition concerning the voting rights of Indians in Indian prisons. Approximately 3,40,000 prisoners are denied this fundamental right. It is an added issue for the 3.7% women prisoners, a prison minority who face an additional gendered stigma.

The Supreme Court of India has made it clear that imprisonment does not justify the suspension of anyone’s fundamental rights. Yet barely any attention has been paid to the infrastructure that is supposed to help rehabilitate women prisoners.

India’s prisons, designed in the British-era for men, have not catered to the specific needs of women. This default setting ignores menstrual hygiene, pregnancy and childbirth facilities.

Imprisoned women also have to endure a lack of contact with their own children, unethical body searches, and general lack of privacy. Their relatively small population further sidelines their issues – they become doubly marginalised in both spatial and gendered ways. And women in carceral spaces have no choice in the election of the people who change laws governing prison conditions and the criminal justice system.

Female criminality has been a subject of interest for social scientists, yet still too little is known or written about it. Women are still seen as preservers of social norms and traditions – glorified and placed on a pedestal by every religion, but also controlled by its institutions.

The complexities of incarceration

OITNB breaks away from these dichotomies. Jenji Kohan’s show is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman about her experiences in federal prison. The show chronicles the lives of women prisoners and is celebrated for its presentation of their lived experience of race, class, sexuality, and different body types.

OITNB destigmatises non-binary sexualities and highlights the lives of trans people, immigrants, and African Americans, humanising all of them. It also exposes the corruption in prison systems. Laverne Cox, who identifies herself as a trans woman, is cast to play a trans woman inmate – authentically capturing the struggles of trans individuals in and out the prison.

The show delves into the complexities of incarceration: Many characters are more comfortable in the predictability of prison life than in the unpredictable society into which they may be released. This reflects real-life situations: Ex-cons often come home to unstable and poor-paying jobs, desperate or indifferent families, and peers who have dispersed or sunk even deeper into harmful and often illegal behaviours. Such conditions raise serious risks of recidivism, due to the lack of structural support – whether rehabilitative services, affordable housing or decent jobs.

Over the last two seasons, the major plot-line concerned a prison riot, and revealed profound issues linked to crime and punishment anywhere in the world: The discrimination within the prison-industrial complex, and the moral bankruptcy of correctional officers who get away with shocking levels of abuse. Often this abuse becomes the reason for prison riots, as reflected on the show. 

Systemic injustices

In 2017, Mumbai’s Byculla women’s jail witnessed a huge riot breakout because of the death of an inmate who battered and bruised, and her lungs damaged because she complained that inmates were not receiving sufficient food.

In an RTI filed by Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar Forum, it was discovered that 92 inmates had died between 2015-2017 across four Maharashtra prisons (Arthur Road, Thane Central, Byculla Women’s Jail, and Kolhapur Central). All these deaths were recorded as either suicide or simply due to natural causes.

Also read: Death of Inmate at Mumbai Jail Highlights ‘Internal Rot and Impunity’ of Penal System

Studies of female prisoners in India have also revealed systemic injustices: Because of their relatively small number, most women prisoners are lodged far from their homes, and often lose contact with their families. Many come from poor and illiterate backgrounds and are unaware of their rights. They face social stigma, are often abandoned by their families, and made more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation inside the prison.

An incomplete picture

But we need new ways to offer visibility to their issues. What OITNB does for the representation of women inmates and female criminality is a model for the Indian media and entertainment industry.

So far, the entertainment media has relied on salacious scoops, as in the case of Indrani Mukherjea. In Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, when Tulsi (Smriti Irani) killed her son for raping his wife, the Indian audience rejoiced. They saw her administering justice as goddess Durga, defeating and killing Mahishasur – rather than seeing as a human who took the law in her own hands. This binary manifests in the depiction of women as either the avengers of injustice or the vamps who deserve to be punished and incarcerated.

Only a handful of Indian films have dealt with women in carceral spaces/female criminality. In Gumrah, an innocent Roshni (Sridevi) is wrongfully accused of drug-trafficking; in Gupt, Isha (Kajol) commits murders in order to seek the man she loves. Ek Haseena Thi has Sarika (Urmila Matondkar) wrongfully arrested because of her boyfriend – from whom she later seeks revenge.

In all these movies, female criminality is the result of women having been wronged – which is far from the complete picture. None of them speak about the bureaucracies of prison structures, or the real circumstances in which women commit crimes. They leave us with no comprehension of women’s pathways to crime, experiences in prison, their challenges after release, and their strategies and struggles as they return to their communities.

As new media campaigns arise and new platforms are used to advocate for women’s rights, we have an opportunity to give a voice to women in carceral spaces. As digital content breaks into the Indian market, free of much censorship, there is tremendous scope to create content that uses the subject of imprisoned women for empathy and understanding – not just for entertainment.

(This was first published on The Wire on 21 April, 2019:
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Sampada Karandikar, Sumati Thusoo