If you’ve seen Orange Is the New Black, you have a loose idea of female prison conditions (barring a few Hollywood liberties). The poor living conditions, mental anguish, and disproportionate repercussions for small infractions all seem to be quite in line with real life. Studies on female prison conditions show that women are more deeply affected than men by their time in prison and may suffer harmful and devastating consequences of their detention.
Lack of Proper Sanitation
A multi-country study found that the most common complaint across female inmate prisons was lack of space and hygiene. Only about half the prisons provided free hot water, and a few provided cleaning products for free based on international standards. Inmates in Guatemala and Zambia stated that they do not receive free hygiene products from the prison—not even soap. These women described the trauma of trying to keep themselves clean and maintain basic human dignity during menstruation.
The study also found that many new mothers must return to prison within one day—or sometimes mere hours—after giving birth. The lack of proper medical care, hot water, soap, and other basic necessities during this time is traumatizing as well as dangerous to the mother’s health. In prisons that keep mothers and children together, women express feelings of helplessness, guilt, and fear. These women cannot keep their children fed on the scarce rations provided, especially in prisons that do not give children their own food. These female prison conditions push women to consider giving their children up for adoption.
In most countries, women are less likely to have funds of their own to purchase items in prison. Yet female prisons offer less outside relief for women, unless a support group steps in to help. In some prisons, four people—two mothers and two babies—must share a single mattress. The inmates describe the disgusting smells of the soiled mattresses and sick babies and the unsanitary practice of having to sleep with a baby next to a dirty toilet. The United Nation’s independent torture expert explained back in 2008 that these poor conditions affect women more adversely than men.
An Environment of Shame and Degradation
During the study, women consistently expressed their deep shame and humiliation at having to ask guards for the “privilege” of using the bathroom, forced to defecate in front of staff or other inmates. Prison guards often deny contact with family and isolate inmates from the outside world to coerce them into sex. In a prison in Jordan, ventilation was a problem. Women had to wear damp undergarments that could not be fully dried, which resulted in a number of urinary tract infections. Women cited feeling ashamed to ask for medical attention for this condition.
Policies in United States female inmate prisons are ill-suited to the particular needs of women versus men, with a consistent neglect of medical needs. Since female inmates represent a small proportion of the total incarcerated population, prisons often overlook the special needs of women or dismiss them as trivial. The poor conditions in female inmate prisons around the globe point to the desperate need for a change. Orange Is the New Black has helped spark a new interest in this issue, and today researchers are conducting more investigations than in previous years. Hopefully, female prison conditions will see a significant change in the future.