Orange is the New Black and the disproportionate impact of drug policy on women

Part of IRETA’s ongoing series on substance use and criminal justice

The wildly popular Netflix television series Orange Is the New Black has garnered an enthusiastic following for its frank portrayal of female inmates in a federal prison: their raunchy wit, their ingenuity, their desires and intimacies, their checkered pasts, and their suffering.


Piper Kerman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The show features Piper Chapman, a fashionable yuppie blonde serving a 15-month sentence for a 12 year-old drug charge. OItNB follows, through Piper’s often naïve perspective, relationships among inmates and their experiences with bureaucracy, injustice, and abuse in the criminal justice (CJ) system.

The series is based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, former inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, today a formidable figure speaking out for prison reform.  Her personal experience in a federal prison lends urgency to her calls for reform in women’s prisons, especially when it comes to prosecution and sentencing of drug offenses.

In a recent editorial for the New York Times, Kerman contends, “Harshly punitive drug laws and diminishing community mental health resources have landed many women in prison who simply do not belong there, often for shockingly long sentences.”

According to The Sentencing Project (2013), women have been “particularly affected by the policies of the ‘war on drugs.’”  Their report continues,

Since women have always represented a small share of persons committing violent crimes, their numbers in prison would not have grown as dramatically had it not been for changes in drug enforcement policies and practices. As law enforcement increased targeting of drug law violators and as sentences for drug offenses became more severe, drug offenders came to represent a rapidly growing share of the incarcerated population, with the proportion of women in prison for drug crimes exceeding that of men. In 1986, 12% of women in state prison were serving time for a drug offense compared to 8% of men. Over time, these proportions increased, and as of 2009, 25.7% of women in prison were serving time for drug offenses, as were 17.2% of men. [emphasis added]

Although OItNB is peppered with funny moments and dry wit—like Piper commenting to a dour-faced guard as she’s given prison-issue footwear, “Oh, these are kinda like TOMS”—it also generates outrage at the system and pity for the women in it. On the show, Piper herself seems out of place, not just for her white-breadness, but for having been incarcerated for a single non-violent drug charge over a decade old.
A world apartCristina Rathbone tells the story of Charlene Williams, an inmate at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Framingham, in her 2005 investigative book, A World Apart: Women, Prison and a Life Behind Bars.

In reality, it’s not an uncommon story.

Charlene, 19, is serving a mandatory 15 years for a single first-time, non-violent drug offense with no possibility of parole or time off for good behavior.  In that block of time, her infant daughter will have grown into a teenager without her mother.

And A World Apart features Denise, also a mother, who is serving a five-year mandatory term at MCI-Framingham for a first-time, non-violent, low-level drug offense.  At one point in her communications with Rathbone, Denise writes frustratedly about the discrepancy between her sentence and those given to offenders guilty of child rape and molestation:

These guys […] received good time, parole eligibility, and work release! I do every day of my 5 years.  I have over 120 days that I’ve earned—I cannot use them towards reducing my sentence. […] Imagine!  Then studies prove that kids who are molested or raped have a much greater chance at substance abuse.  So take a group of 10 kids who were molested or raped, follow their lives for 15-20 years… Guess who’s in prison? Non-violent, drug offenders!

I was molested at age 11 by my neighbor. Julie was raped at 14, Susan Grissin was repeatedly raped…And the people who kick start the beginning of our destinies go free, or do little time? I’m doing two more years than a child rapist!?!

It is often the case, according to Silja J. A. Talvi, the author of Women Behind Bars, that women take the blame for the men in their lives: husbands, boyfriends, sons, pimps. Story after story reveals women who refuse to “snitch” on relatives or boyfriends who are dealing—and are then slapped with federal conspiracy charges on top of the mandatory sentence.  The real perpetrators of the crime often serve less time.

“Conspiracy offenses,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance, “represent one of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s inequitable treatment of women.”

And this is cause for alarm, says Talvi: “One of the most profound indicators of a criminal justice system gone awry is the fact that we are incarcerating the most vulnerable members of our society en masse. In essence, prosecutors and judges are sending the people with the fewest resources and least ability to afford decent legal representation to the slammer, often for very lengthy periods of time.” (Women Behind Bars, 2007, p 5).

Who Are the Women in Prison?

The Women’s Prison Association supplies these statistics on the female prison population:

  • The number of women in prison has grown by over 800% in the past three decades. The female prison population grew by 832% from 1977 to 2007. The male prison population grew 416% during the same time period.
  • Two thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug-related crimes. In the 10-year period from 1999 to 2008, arrests of women for drug violations increased 19%, compared to 10% for men.
  • Nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers. At midyear 2007, approximately 65,600 women in federal and state custody reported being the mothers of 147,400 minor children.
  • Women of color are disproportionately represented in prison. Ninety-three out of every 100,000 white women were incarcerated at midyear 2008. During the same time period, 349 out every 100,000 black women and 147 out of every 100,000 Hispanic women were incarcerated.
  • Women in prison are largely in their thirties and forties. Fifty-one percent of sentenced women were between the ages of 30 – 44, with 36% of those between the ages of 35 – 39 at midyear 2008.

OItNB’s opening credits are designed to capture this demography:

Moreover, women’s pathways to prison look different from men’s, says the National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women, and often begin with victimization and abuse, leading to mental illness, including depression, anxiety and PTSD, and substance use and abuse.

In their research informed by trauma theory, Barbara Bloom and Stephanie Covington explain that the painful experiences of past and current traumas often cause three responses: retreat, self-destructive behaviors and destructive behaviors.  Men tend toward destructive behavior, while women tend to retreat or engage in self-destructive behaviors, including substance abuse.

With these factors in mind, expert recommendations for treating incarcerated women take into account the high percentage of female offenders that have experienced abuse, struggle with SUDs, and have children or families they are leaving behind. According to SAMHSA’s publication, Substance Abuse Treatment for Women Offenders, Guide to Promising Practices, promising practices in gender responsive treatment in women’s prisons include:

  • Building a treatment approach that is rooted in an understanding about how women grow and develop, and about how these social and developmental factors affect addiction.
  • Using sanctions in creative and reasonable ways that will reinforce treatment goals and engage women in treatment for the necessary length of time.
  • Assessing each woman’s needs in a comprehensive, yet flexible, manner so that needs are matched to the intensity and length of care required.
  • Providing continuity of care, from the pre-sentencing period through in-custody treatment, to continuing treatment and support during the months following release, so that women have an opportunity to develop the skills and resources to survive and contribute to their communities.
  • Ensuring that women receive the housing and other services that they need so desperately in the early post-release period, to help them avoid both relapse and recidivism.

In future posts, we will examine existing models that promote recovery among women in the criminal justice system and policy reforms that can begin to reduce the immeasurable damage to women and families wrought by our decades-long “war on drugs.”


Further reading and viewing

“Women Convicted of Felonies May Get Chance to Stay Out of Prison,” New York Times article on JusticeHome

Rathbone, Cristina. (2005).  A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars. New York: Random House.

Solinger, Rickie, et al., eds. (2010).  Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Talvi, Silja J. A. (2007). Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Woman in the U.S. Prison System. New York: Seal Press, 2007.

Guides for Organizations

Substance Abuse Treatment for Women Offenders, Guide to Promising Practices (1999)

Achieving Successful Outcomes with Justice-Involved Women: A Review of the Research, Tools and Resources for Practitioners

Ten Truths That Matter When Working With Justice Involved Women


National Resource Center on Justice Involved WomenWomen’s Prison AssociationThe Sentencing ProjectAmerican Civil Liberties Union: Women in PrisonFamilies Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)