The Real Women of “Orange is the New Black” Find the Series Nothing to Laugh About
Date:  08-25-2014

With all the glitter of the Emmys, the dark side of incarceration is obscured
By Beatrice Codianni August 24, 2014

On August 23, 2014 at a park at Riverside and 139th Street in Harlem, a dozen women from diverse backgrounds got together to launch a new advocacy organization for women who are locked up in federal prison. I was happy to be among them. This meeting had been in the works since the June 21 Free Her rally in Washington, DC which was held to call on President Obama to grant clemency to women convicted of a non violent offenses.

The organization, Real Women, Real Voices (RWRV), is comprised of women who served time at Danbury Federal Prison, the prison Piper Kerman wrote about in her best-selling book “Orange is the New Black.” While Piper's book rendition of prison living is wonderfully accurate, the Netflix series takes serious liberties with the truth. Yes, the Netflix version of prison is supposed to be entertaining. But there's a danger in this distortion of the truth. Those who have not been to prison may end up thinking that the Netflix version of prison is exactly like it is portrayed in the series. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I have been incarcerated at Danbury. (Full disclosure, I am “Esposito” in Piper Kerman’s book.)

Let me give you some real-life examples:

During my incarceration I have witnessed women held in prison for decades because they took their case to trial and received what is known as the “trial penalty.” The term “trial penalty” unfortunately has made its way into everyday criminal justice vernacular. Simply put, accept the deal a prosecutor offers you or take it to trial. And if you lose, you are going to get slammed. Those who assert their innocence and believe that “just” is a real component of our country’s criminal justice system are in for a rude awakening. And the sad part is that most of the people in federal prison are held on drug conspiracy charges. That’s right, conspiracy, not the actual deed. The American public needs a real wake-up call on how our system of criminal justice prosecutions really works.

I have seen elderly women who are no threat to society incarcerated for years upon years, as their health and minds deteriorate. The federal prison system has a compassionate release policy that is seldom used. Instead of sending these frail, non violent women home, they are sent instead to a federal medical center in Fort Worth, TX at huge taxpayer expense.

One of the saddest experiences I witnessed while in prison is how the children of incarcerated mothers suffer. Visiting days are filled with instances of a mother trying to hold back her tears as her child clings to her and cries that he or she wants mommy to come home now. Far worse are the keening wails of women who have lost custody of their children because they are in prison. If this was truly a just society these women would have been given an alternative to incarceration and would have kept their families and their community intact.

But nothing is more heartbreaking than losing a loved one when you are locked up and helpless. One of the real-life main characters in OITNB lost her mother shortly after she was incarcerated. Even though she was designated as requiring minimal security and was incarcerated less than 50 miles away from home, she was not allowed to go to her mother’s funeral because she had not been incarcerated for the arbitrary time period of three months. One mother was allowed to go to her murdered 16-year old daughter’s wake. Although she was from Yonkers, NY the woman was incarcerated in Minnesota. Her family had to quickly scrape together $5,000 so she could be escorted to the funeral parlor. Many women in prison never get to say a final goodbye to a loved one.

Still think prison is a comedy? Real Women, Real Voices would like to share some facts that the Arkansas Educational Television Network put together on women in prison, and their children:

  • The number of women in prisons and jails is increasing at a faster rate than that of men. Nationally, there are now nearly seven times as many women in prison as in 1980. (U. S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs)

  • 75% of women in prison are mothers. Two-thirds of these women have children under the age of 18. (U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

  • 78% of women in prison report that they have been physically or sexually abused. Women who were abused or neglected as children face a 77% higher chance of arrest than a comparison group of women who did not experience abuse or neglect. (U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs)

  • 60% of imprisoned mothers say they maintain some form of weekly contact with their children. However, fewer than half of imprisoned mothers (46%) report a personal visit with their children since going to prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children) Over 60% of mothers in prison are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their children, making visitation difficult, financially prohibitive and often impossible. (National Council on Crime Delinquency)

  • Children of incarcerated parents are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, aggression, truancy, attention disorders and poor scholastic performance. (National Institute of Justice)

  • Nationally, foster care for a prisoner's child costs an average of $20,000 per year, adding to the cost of incarcerating their caregivers.

  • Mothers in prison can literally lose their children in the foster care system as the child is shifted from family to family. The Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1996 seeks permanent placement for children who are in foster care 15 months in a period of 22 months. The OITNB series has struck a raw nerve among several participants at the launch of RWRV. The overall consensus is that the series should do more to show the darker side of incarceration. Life at Danbury was not all sexual romps and enjoying contraband goods. It was, and is, filled with guilt for leaving your children, the pain of divorce and bereavement, disappointment in self for making poor decisions, and an overall realization that one has forever lost a part of their life only to be warehoused in a system that is no way rehabilitative.

    So laugh at the antics of Crazy Eyes, Yoga Janet, Pennsatucky and the rest of the characters of OITNB. But, stop and remember that these characters are just that -- fictional characters -- and that the real women of Danbury are real people caught up painful and sad life stories -- not comic caricatures, redrawn for TV entertainment.

    Beatrice Codianni, spent 15 years in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, at both the Federal Correctional Institution and Federal Prison Camp. It was at the prison camp that Beatrice got to know Piper Kerman. Beatrice is now the managing editor of Reentry Central, an acclaimed online subscription news source on criminal justice reform. Contact: