As we have known for decades if it’s not happening on TV it is not happening at all and so it is that Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) has thrust the incarceration of women into the spotlight in a manner that no miscarriage of justice could ever hope to achieve.
When something you care about has been granted the oxygen of publicity it is churlish to complain and instead you seize your chance. The fact is that prison confers negligible benefits on us as a society and in the case of women prisoners almost none at all.
I have written previously that a prison is one place that all children should see before they turn 18. Not as a ghoulish day out as sometimes occurs in the US when wayward adolescents are shown death row tiers to put the frighteners on them but in order that everybody see for themselves what we do with wrongdoers. In the same way that we can’t imagine what happens to all our rubbish until we visit the dump for the first time it is hard to conceive what prison is actually like until we see it with our own eyes.
Here are some things that prison is not like: the Ritz; a holiday camp; home. Here are some things prison is like: spending almost all day and all night locked in your childhood bedroom usually with a mentally ill stranger; sleeping next to your toilet; eating the worst food you have ever eaten – for every meal; being the most bored you have ever been – all the time.
Michael Howard is credited with coining the meaningless slogan ‘prison works’ as long ago as 1993. It is meaningless because, while it is true that detaining dangerous and recidivist criminals prevents them from killing and stealing, it is certainly not true if you believe that penal policy should meaningfully address the causes of offending.
Prison in the vast majority of cases is a dumping ground and as with rubbish when it is buried in the ground the process just makes people toxic. Unless and until prisons are properly resourced so that they rehabilitate offenders will not be recycled they will just be caged at a cost to us higher than the fees at Eton.
Prison is particularly pointless and harmful for women, most of whom serve very short sentences that prevent any kind of rehabilitative or educational programmes being devised for them. In many cases women are separated from their children, even newborn infants, storing up inevitable problems for the younger generation. Very few women commit the kind of dangerous offences that mean they pose a genuine threat to life and limb and being such a tiny minority in the prison population policy invariably overlooks that their needs are different to those of men.
If OITNB has piqued your interest can I strongly recommend that you consider joining the Howard League for Penal Reform which has endeavoured for years to hold successive governments to account and to inform and instruct for improvement in penal policy. They are particularly alive to the problems of incarcerating vulnerable women women.
Knowledge is the antidote to populism and nonsense. A Conservative M.P. recently complained that it was not fair that women prisoners do not need to wear uniforms uniforms. Lest that sentiment strikes a chord with you ask yourself if it is fair on you when prisoners leave prison and return to crime. For myself I don’t care what prisoners wear as long as prison is a useful and instructive experience. Prison has been the fashion for far too long; it’s time for a change.