The new Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black” is capturing national media attention. The series, based on the best-selling book, is based on the experiences of its author, Piper Kerman, at Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Prison Camp.
Kerman, a Smith College graduate, spent a year in prison for helping a friend transport a suitcase of drug money from Brussels, Belgium, to the United States. The incident, which happened shortly after she graduated from college, opened her eyes to the prison experience and motivated her to approach Random House about writing “Orange is the New Black.” The book has been a runaway success, and Kerman is being invited by top media outlets to tell the story of what happens to women who are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons — and why the United States should perhaps think twice about its race to incarcerate.
Meanwhile, another real-life drama is unfolding at Danbury. In a move that is sure to produce far-reaching collateral consequences, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has announced that it will be re-converting the minimum-security prison for women in Danbury back to an all-male facility. The prison camp, a satellite facility, will remain all female.
According to the prison bureau, most of the 1,200 women affected by the move will be sent to a new $250 million prison in Aliceville, Ala. The reasoning behind the move is that male minimum-security prisons are overcapacity. However, female federal correctional institutions are, too. In fact, the move to Alabama will still leave federal facilities for women 31 percent overcapacity, according to the New York Times.
So why spend money to build new prisons or to play a game of shuffling inmates around when neither will solve the over-incarceration problem that is causing corrections budgets to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars?
America has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Like the women in Danbury, most of this country’s inmate population comprises nonviolent drug offenders. The war on drugs cost an estimated $3 trillion. The ensuing frenzy of mass incarceration has done little to increase public safety. It has, however, had a negative impact on millions of families.
It is estimated that over half of inmates have a child under 18. For women in federal prison, that number is 41.2 percent. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that for mothers in federal prison, 56 percent reported weekly telephone calls and 45 percent reported weekly mail contact. Sadly, according to the statistics bureau, 40 percent hadn’t been visited since admission. For the women in Danbury who will be moved 1,136 miles away, family visits are likely to be few and far between. The prison was primarily designated, in 1993, for women from New York, New Jersey and New England, as well as for women from other countries.
In its report, “Enhancing the Reentry Outcomes of Justice-Involved Women: New Resources Available for Criminal Justice Professionals,” the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women wrote: “Minimal contact during incarceration, barriers to regaining custody or parental rights, limited outside support for child rearing, and financial hardship contribute to considerable stress among incarcerated mothers. Research indicates that such stress can result in the individual having difficulty adjusting to the institution and results in higher rates of recidivism. Therefore, connecting and/or reunifying incarcerated mothers with their children are critical for successful reentry.”
Studies have found that children of incarcerated parents often have trouble coping with the separation. They may feel stigmatized, do poorly in school and engage in anti-social or criminal behaviors. To a child with a mother sent 1,000 miles away, that distance might seem as far as the moon.
One of the most dreaded orders an inmate can hear is to “pack out.” Packing-out means much more than stuffing your photos and the limited number of personal items they are allowed to possess into a small box that will be shipped to wherever you are sent. It also means that yet another collateral consequence is piled upon one’s sentence. How far you are shipped can mean the virtual end of a relationship with your family. If you are a mom it might mean that you may not see your child for years because of the high costs associated with travelling.
Those involved in criminal justice reform have been advocating for years that it is time for the federal government to overhaul its sentencing policies and eliminate costly and ineffective mandatory minimum sentences. A priority should be given to implementing sentence reductions to nonviolent, first-time offenders sentenced under mandatory minimum laws. Reducing the federal prison population — not building more prisons or transferring inmates from prison to prison — is a much more intelligent and cost-effective solution to overcrowding.
It may be too late for the woman of the federal institution at Danbury, but unless swift action is taken and more practical solutions are implemented, the collateral consequences of mass incarceration will continue to destroy families and communities.
A related story on this issue can be viewed here.