The maximum security Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, where numerous employees have been accused of abusing inmates. (Rivers A. Langley/Wikimedia)

Orange Is the New Black, the popular Netflix show based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, brought female prisons into America’s living room, highlighting several issues that are plaguing the correctional system.

While the show exaggerates some of the illegal activities that happen in a prison, it accurately depicts how security personnel can exacerbate the problems that led to incarceration in the first place, thereby increasing the rate of recidivism rather than recovery.

The narrative is fascinating from a social sciences standpoint because of the bonds between the characters. From Piper to Red to Gloria, they are all searching for ways to recover from trauma or psychological impediments while simultaneously learning to trust (or mistrust) security personnel. This highlights a key component in rehabilitation: building relationships.

More women are serving time in the United States than ever before and incarceration in the women’s prison system is growing at a rate faster than it is in the men’s system. From 1980 to 2010, the number of female prisoners increased from 15,118 to 112,797, according to The Sentencing Project. From 2010 to 2013 the population grew another 10.9 percent.

Like the characters Orange Is the New Black, many of the women in prison today are victims themselves. Research tells us that the following factors are often closely correlated with the incarceration of female offenders: sexual abuse, physical abuse, poverty, substance abuse, and mental health issues. As such, women’s prison systems and their security personnel need to pay particular attention to helping inmates build positive relationships while in prison, otherwise known as implementing a relational model.

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From broken relationships to broken laws
The reason for the rise in the number of female offenders is clearly a tangled web. When looking at the bigger picture of America’s accelerating incarceration rate, additional factors come into play such as higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, ongoing issues of racism, and failed attempts to combat the war on drugs.

Many prisons are failing to help with rehabilitation and instead exacerbate the problem by not building their systems around the complications of their demographics, however. To begin fixing many of the problems within the female prison system, it’s essential to first understand its demographics and the reasons why inmates were incarcerated in the first place.

According to The Sentencing Project, “Women are more likely to be in prison for drug and property offenses, while men are more likely to be in prison for violent offenses.” Women also are often in relationships with men who commit violent crimes and many times are incarcerated as accomplices.

They are often young, single mothers who ran away from home as children to avoid abuse. Many reject positive relationships while seeking out negative ones. This knowledge should lead security personnel to understand that their interaction with the inmates will be dramatically influenced by previous trauma and psychological harm. This is why it’s so important for officers to be trained properly.

Relational theory is an ideal approach for improving the female prison system because it posits that a woman’s sense of self-worth can be severely undermined when relationships important to her (e.g. parent, lover, siblings) are a source of psychological and physical harm.

Research shows that relationships developed with staffers during incarceration directly impact recidivism. Yet many of today’s security practices carried out by correctional personnel re-traumatize women, thereby blocking or sabotaging any real attempt at reforming them, so they can learn how to lead productive, pro-social lives.

Women’s prison systems are moving away from gender-specific programs and toward trauma-informed programs. This is a better way to approach female offenders, since even conservative estimates tell us that about half the population are victims of trauma. Though relational theory might sound to some like “psychobabble,” it begins with professionalism, which is needed across the board, regardless of gender. Making prisons humane institutions is good for everyone since prisons are where you go as punishment, not for punishment.

Source: Pixabay

Simple steps to implement the relational model
The first step in bringing a relational approach to the correctional system is to train custody staff in female offenders’ characteristics, so they have a better understanding of who they are dealing with. When staffers know a female offender’s personal history, it explains a lot about how she behaves. Individuals who have been severely traumatized are difficult to deal with on many levels, but when you know that their behavior is a learned response for self-preservation, you can begin to make operational changes.

For example, instead of strip-searching women, prisons can use full-body scans like those used in airports, and prisoner visiting programs could include child-friendly play spaces for mother and child to interact in a developmentally-appropriate manner. In this way, the individual’s humanity is largely kept intact, while the prison’s security needs are met.

At the most basic level, one way to implement the relational method is through conversation. It might sound simple, but if staffers take an interest in the women’s personal lives by asking questions about their children or loved ones, then they can begin to help the healing process. Staffers should demonstrate care and interest, recognizing that when a woman is incarcerated, her whole family is impacted.

Another practical way staffers can contribute to the psychological wellness of inmates is to provide choices for women, where possible. Within the prison system, there are many programs for inmates to participate in. In the relational model, staffers would rephrase “Why aren’t you motivated?” as “What motivates you?” Imagine how empowering that can be when the typical prison environment deprives you of so many freedoms and choices–such as when to get up, what to wear, what to eat, and when to make phone calls.

While the dynamic between correctional officers and inmates can be challenging, feeling respected while inside the prison can go a long way for these women and contribute to their ability to make positive changes on the outside.

A relational approach would make for a kinder, gentler prison, which does not mean coddling criminals or being lax about security. It would restore a woman’s self-esteem, not re-traumatize her, and provide at least a fighting chance for her to learn how to create healthy, safe relationships with others.

The widespread fandom for Orange Is the New Black is undeniable. What’s also undeniable is the soaring population of female inmates and the need for reform in how their unique needs are met.