Orange is the New Black is the new Alabama?
September 24, 2013 9:01 AM   Subscribe

The Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT (famous for once housing Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black) is converting from a women’s prison to a men’s prison. Where will the inmates go? Aliceville, AL; a location more than 1,000 miles away, nowhere near a major airport, and 45 miles away from a train station. Eleven United States senators sent an open letter to the director of the Bureau of Prisons last month, and the transition remains in a state of delay. Piper Kerman wrote a NYT op-ed with her perspective.
posted by oceanjesse (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I live in west Alabama, and many of my students commute from Aliceville. Several years ago when they were building the Aliceville penitentiary, I was appalled when a student came to class wearing a t-shirt for the prison with a picture of the facility captioned "If you build it, they will come."

Here they come.
posted by fogovonslack at 9:08 AM on September 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


We really need a review of our societies understanding and approach to incarceration. Are these woman criminals an imminent threat to society? Certainly some broken men and men with associations associations with organized gangs are actively dangerous and you would be quite nervous if they moved next door, but really? Good to see senators taking some note, but drug war and all, how is there such a seemingly dysfunctional approach to corrections so ingrained in the bureaucracy?
posted by sammyo at 9:11 AM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


This may not be the Constitutional definition of cruel and unusual, but it sure as hell fits my colloquial definition.
posted by rtha at 9:12 AM on September 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


This is horrible, almost as bad as shipping anyone being held for immigration cases gets shipped around the country, repeatedly, without warning or notification to their families.
It seems we've given up completely on the idea of rehabilitation or preparing prisoners to return to the community. Because if we gave a crap, we wouldn't do this.
I worked in Danbury a gazillion years ago, when it held the Berrigans among other nonviolent offenders. I don't know when it became a women's prison but really, is this the only solution to overcrowding? To treat people like nameless, faceless beings?
posted by etaoin at 9:14 AM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Awful, horrible, terrible. But not so unexpected or surprising, after all, in the preeminent prison nation of the world.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:17 AM on September 24, 2013


[That thing where you make the comment in the voice of someone who is not you for some sort of ironic humor? Please consider not doing that here.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:22 AM on September 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I suppose this is good because it gets the attention, but I can't help thinking that when they herd 1000 black male prisoners like cattle, you hear nothing. When 1000 women get herded from the prison a white Smith grad attended, it shows up in the NYT.
posted by Halogenhat at 9:23 AM on September 24, 2013 [17 favorites]


you know, in the thread about late-term abortions, Eyebrows McGee wrote the following:

The other thing I discovered while teaching is that a majority -- a pretty solid majority -- of people who oppose third-trimester abortions don't consider medically-necessary abortions to be abortions. Generally if it's necessary to save the mother's life, or if the fetus won't survive more than, say, 3 days outside the womb, they don't consider that an abortion. They say, "Okay, that's technically abortion, but that's not what I mean. I mean, that's a medical decision!" What they really mostly objected to was a narrative in which people had irresponsible sex and then didn't "do anything" about the pregnancy until they're 6 months pregnant, and then just "decide" they don't want the baby; they thought that those really harrowing medical choices should be left to a woman, her family, and her doctors, and weren't "real" abortions. They primarily objected to people having abortions for "social" reasons. (emphasis mine)

I think the same thing applies here.

People in general probably feel the same way about "criminals". They object to violent people murdering and hurting others. They don't see that criminals can also be someone who wrote a bunch of bad checks, who was an unwitting accomplice in a drug ring (boyfriend hid drugs in her apartment or car or something), fought back against a violent abusive husband when the resources failed to protect her and her children.

People would say those aren't "real" criminals.

They primarily object to people who cannot be in society.
posted by sio42 at 9:24 AM on September 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


link to Eyebrow McGee's comment
posted by sio42 at 9:25 AM on September 24, 2013


the prison a white Smith grad attended

Heh. I think "was incarcerated in" is perhaps the better term than "attended".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:25 AM on September 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


In my short time there I was elbow to elbow with women of every age, race and religion. Our differences were myriad, but what we had in common was obvious — prison khakis, steel-toed shoes and an eight-digit inmate registration number. What was universally important to all of us were our lifelines to the outside world — our spouses and partners, our friends and family, and for many women, their children.

The thing that is so weird to me about this is that it's figuring the prison as this positive space - we're not integrated anywhere else, but hell, white middle class women in jail go to jail with women of color! And everyone wears the same clothes.

Obviously, obviously, this prison move is a bad, cruel, stupid and horrible idea. People who are fighting it are doing the right thing and deserve props, and it's good that folks who you might not expect to care about prisoners are able to make the moral and human leap to do so.

Separately from that, the reform/Orange Is the New Black discourse about prisons makes me so, so sad that I really just want to cry and cry. It's like what's happened in people's heads is "oh, we should destigmatize prison because there are some perfectly decent people in prison who are human just as you and I and the prison is the site of normal human experience" - just accepting that the prison system should be, must be a site of normal human experience. That we can make a heartwarming, humanistic drama with comic elements set in a prison - sort of a Life Is Beautiful for prisons. Like prison is just one setting for culture, a neutral setting like a college, office or family home. Or like the prison is even, in a sense, a utopia where Lessons Are Learned and we are, at last, an integrated society.

This isn't anyone's fault, I'm not saying that people need to Correct Their Thought. It just seems like a symptom of the power of the prison industrial complex.

(Anyone who wants to read a philosophical/dystopian novel about the prison's place in the social economy, I recommend The Red Rose Rages, Bleeding by Timmel DuChamp.)
posted by Frowner at 9:27 AM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


That we can make a heartwarming, humanistic drama with comic elements set in a prison - sort of a Life Is Beautiful for prisons.

Have you seen the show? This isn't really what it's like at all.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:31 AM on September 24, 2013 [16 favorites]


Hey, assholes: Papillon was not a how-to manual.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:33 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


My wife is from Greenville, MS and when we go to visit her father every year or so, we like to take Highway 82 there. There's some nice scenery, but we also take care not to do any night driving on the western Alabama portion (just north of Aliceville) because that particular strip gets dark and spooky as hell.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:34 AM on September 24, 2013


People in general probably feel the same way about "criminals". They object to violent people murdering and hurting others. They don't see that criminals can also be someone who wrote a bunch of bad checks, who was an unwitting accomplice in a drug ring (boyfriend hid drugs in her apartment or car or something), fought back against a violent abusive husband when the resources failed to protect her and her children.

Another category which makes people feel uncomfortable are the people who are less immediately scary than the "violent people murdering and hurting others", but who are less blameless than an unwitting accomplice, or someone who fights back against an abusive partner. Fraudsters and extortionists wind up in prison, too.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:41 AM on September 24, 2013



Have you seen the show? This isn't really what it's like at all.


I have, actually - I mean, just a couple of episodes. It's a pretty good show. But it's from a reform angle, and it's intended as an argument for better prisons and a recognition that "prisoners are people too and don't think you're better because you're middle class and white". There's also, IMO, some power/knowledge problems in how this kind of show is situated - I felt the same way about The Wire, in that it's a powerful show that speaks to a lot of audiences and represents people who are not generally represented, but it also provides a "window on the world of [exotic poor people/POC]" for an educated wealthy white cultured audience to consume in a way that I find weird and orientalizing. I am not comfortable with a lot of the commentary I've heard from well-off white acquaintances about Orange Is The New Black.
posted by Frowner at 9:50 AM on September 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I suppose this is good because it gets the attention, but I can't help thinking that when they herd 1000 black male prisoners like cattle, you hear nothing. When 1000 women get herded from the prison a white Smith grad attended, it shows up in the NYT.

Can we, as a site, stop doing this? I mean, yeah, the way black men get treated in this country, especially in the prison system, is horrible, but, if that is your only contribution to a thread about the situation of a particular group of women prisoners, then why comment at all? Really solid FPPs can be made about the incarceration of black men in the US, and we haven't had one in a while....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:53 AM on September 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


One in 28 children has a parent in prison today, and Danbury houses the mothers of at least 700 children

I don't even know what to say about this, except that we, as a country, have done something extremely wrong. Someone I knew used to work with the Girl Scout troops for girls whose mothers were incarcerated, and her experience was the usual bag of uplifting moments, pride in the troop, and acknowledgement of how tremendously hard it was for those families. To split apart families [and not just mothers and fathers from children] like this is wrong. It's just wrong.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:57 AM on September 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


The problem is that the people who are making these decisions start off from a very different set of premises than do the people here. And, if you accept those premises, then its a fine, even great decision. It accomplishes three things:

(1) It's cheaper (Less is more!)
(2) It makes the punishment for these evildoers harsher. Increasing their misery is a good thing. (Tough on crime!)
(3) It helps support the economy of a place in the "real" (read, "red-state") America. Jobs for Alabama!

It's useless to react as if this is a bad decision being made by people of goodwill. It's a perfectly logical and in-character decision being made by, well, I won't quite presume "bad" people, but by people starting off with bad assumptions.

Funny, too. It wasn't always like this: If, as a child, you'd told me that in 2013 the communist USSR would be a retro memory, and that America would have more prisoners than Russia ever had, I'd have thought you were insane.
posted by tyllwin at 9:57 AM on September 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


he problem is that the people who are making these decisions start off from a very different set of premises than do the people here. And, if you accept those premises, then its a fine, even great decision. It accomplishes three things:

(1) It's cheaper (Less is more!)
(2) It makes the punishment for these evildoers harsher. Increasing their misery is a good thing. (Tough on crime!)
(3) It helps support the economy of a place in the "real" (read, "red-state") America. Jobs for Alabama!


It's entirely possible that this is the thinking, but I'd be curious to see how legitimate the explanation of needing the space for male inmates is. Keeping people far from their families is bad, but so is overcrowding. The real solution would seem to be to build a new facility in the Northeast, but I doubt there's money for that.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:02 AM on September 24, 2013


I suppose this is good because it gets the attention, but I can't help thinking that when they herd 1000 black male prisoners like cattle, you hear nothing. When 1000 women get herded from the prison a white Smith grad attended, it shows up in the NYT.

Can we, as a site, stop doing this? I mean, yeah, the way black men get treated in this country, especially in the prison system, is horrible, but, if that is your only contribution to a thread about the situation of a particular group of women prisoners, then why comment at all? Really solid FPPs can be made about the incarceration of black men in the US, and we haven't had one in a while....


This can be viewed as a story about prisoners just as much as a story about women prisoners.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:07 AM on September 24, 2013


The real solution would seem to be to build a new facility in the Northeast, but I doubt there's money for that.

See, I just want to scream about this. Build more prisons? That's the solution? The US doesn't have enough prisons? I'd suggest the solution to prison overcrowding is to look hard at how many people we're putting in prison, and why, and without chanting "lock 'em up and throw away the key."
posted by tyllwin at 10:12 AM on September 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


See, I just want to scream about this. Build more prisons? That's the solution? The US doesn't have enough prisons? I'd suggest the solution to prison overcrowding is to look hard at how many people we're putting in prison, and why, and without chanting "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

If you ran for office on that platform the "TYLLWIN IS SOFT ON CRIME" message would not stop until election day.

The American electorate has spoken and they want harsh brutality for even the softest of criminals.
posted by Talez at 10:14 AM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Housing prisoners where their families or remaining friends cannot see them is deleterious. People in prison--nearly all of them, actually--will eventually be released. They will have no money in the bank, no job history, no job skills and most likely very little education. If you house them 1,000 miles away from their home and community, in a place largely inaccessible by air and rail, you will release them without friends and without strong family connections. What will happen then?

I know prison serves myriad and complicated social purposes. I know people get really really angry when they think prisoners get any benefits from being in prison. But prisoners get released and you don't want people who have discharged their sentence coming back into the community worse off than they were when they committed their crimes in the first place. Forget about the prisoner for a moment. Forget about what you think they deserve or don't deserve. Think about your community and the other communities around you. Think about what the community needs and what it deserves.

Your community and the ones surrounding it deserve people who have dignity and an opportunity to care for themselves. You deserve--you need--people who can function within the rules and who have the skills, resources, and social network to do so. When you throw people in prison; then ignore, isolate, abuse or dehumanize them, you are actively working against the success of their eventual release. You're hurting the prisoner, sure, but you're hurting your communities more. An ex-con with no family left, no friends left, and no skills has nothing to lose; the neighborhood where he lands after prison almost certainly does.

It's why we fought so hard to fix those ruinous rates for phone calls to and from prisoners. It's why work on video visitation (without charge) with their children for prisoners. These are people; and they don't disappear just because they spend a number of years in prison.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:19 AM on September 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


I meant the solution that's possible from the perspective of a prison administrator since they're the ones making determinations in this story. If your concern is the ability of prisoners to remain in contact with their families and communities and ease their reintegration into life outside prison, then yes, more decentralized prisons closer to the community is quite possibly part of the solution.

I'd like to see significantly fewer people in prison too, but it's not happening in the immediate future; that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make prison less of an ordeal than it is now. The process of ensuring that fewer people are in prison probably starts with making our prisons better.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:20 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and tyllwin, is totally right. Alternatives to incarceration are even better for everyone than is humanely housing prisoners.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:20 AM on September 24, 2013


The real solution would seem to be to build a new facility in the Northeast, but I doubt there's money for that.

Or incarcerate fewer people. That would reduce prison overcrowding, save money, keep people in the workforce -- all of which would be solid wins. We lock up a lot of people who don't really need to be locked up, which has drawn resources away from places that would help the incarcerated not be prisoners. I think part of the problem is that there are a bunch of groups -- law enforcement, prisons, politicians -- who benefit from a lot of people going to jail, and those groups want to keep their funding up, so, of course, there will be pushback from a variety of groups, but we could try reforming the system rather than throwing up our hands and saying "let's build more prisons." Couldn't we at least try creating fewer prisoners?
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:20 AM on September 24, 2013


The "TYLLWIN IS SOFT ON CRIME" message would not stop until election day.

I absolutely know it. You left out "Wants to go easier on DRUG LORDS! On CHILD MOLESTERS! On TERRORISTS!" And you'd kick my ass six ways from Sunday.

And it goes down to every level. I just don't know what to do about it.
posted by tyllwin at 10:22 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Couldn't we at least try creating fewer prisoners?

How? By creating more and better educational opportunities? By providing on demand reproductive health services? By providing any measure of better access to mental health services? By treating human beings with dignity? By decriminalizing all drugs and prostitution?

Huh...
posted by Sophie1 at 10:27 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Last year, voters in California were all soft on crime, in that we voted to lessen the stupid harshness of our three-strikes law. And because our state prisons are under federal oversight because of overcrowding and terrible medical access, more prisoners are being shifted to county facilities (not a panacea by any means, but county officials are trying more keep-em-out-of-jail programs as a result). But Jerry Brown is proposing moving prisoners out of state to places like Nevada and Arizona. I haven't seen anything that suggests this will be cheaper in the long run than fixing the prisons we already have and which he has been ordered by the courts A LOT to do.
posted by rtha at 10:36 AM on September 24, 2013


Last year, voters in California were all soft on crime, in that we voted to lessen the stupid harshness of our three-strikes law.

Which was a giant surprirse after voters went hook, line and sinker for Prop 9 and Prop 83. Punish those faceless criminals with longer waits for parole attempts and extrajudicially by not letting people try and reintegrate into the community.
posted by Talez at 10:44 AM on September 24, 2013


how is there is such a seemingly dysfunctional but profit-able approach to corrections so ingrained in the bureaucracy free market small govt approach (and jobs)

I was just going to FTFY but then I started digging up links to where the money points ... afaik not a huge private prison corporation running it, 'just' the federal govt

I understand that space was needed, I understand the facitlies need upgrading but also, ALABAMA? That's a long long long way. How about funding pre-prison stuff like education, food, housing, job opptys?
posted by tilde at 11:37 AM on September 24, 2013


Boss Hog just wants to replace Daisy with prisoner waitresses. What will the Boys and Uncle Jeb do?
posted by srboisvert at 12:08 PM on September 24, 2013


ow? By creating more and better educational opportunities? By providing on demand reproductive health services? By providing any measure of better access to mental health services? By treating human beings with dignity? By decriminalizing all drugs and prostitution?

That would be a start. I am not sure why funding mental health programs doesn't create jobs while funding prisons does. Of course, with the mental health jobs, they would be in cities, which might be part of the problem....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:17 PM on September 24, 2013


I might be cynical for suggesting this, but does anyone else think that the senators wrote this letter in August primarily because the show on Netflix was released one month earlier, in July?
posted by oceanjesse at 1:42 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not comfortable with a lot of the commentary I've heard from well-off white acquaintances about Orange Is The New Black.

Having watched a number of acquaintances and relatives come around on various issues of race, gender, and class over the last couple decades, I've noticed that the path from where they were to where they are now seems to always involve a lot of fairly ghastly, usually well-meant but terribly misguided and cringe-inducing statements. Obviously such statements are not necessarily a sign of progress, and may be the work of a set bigot or even someone retrogressing, but watching people who were brought up in fairly benighted circumstances slowly work their way out of them -- with the help of friends, family, and yes, even TV shows -- it seems pretty clear that there's no way to get from there to here without talking about a lot of stuff you still get fairly horribly wrong. But damned if they aren't making progress -- sometimes even by accident after choosing to watch a show about a familiar white lady in jail which turns out to be a stalking horse for a (somewhat) more sophisticated agenda.
posted by chortly at 2:02 PM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]




If you build it, they will come. Whether they want to or not.
posted by Dashy at 4:23 PM on September 24, 2013


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