One of my favorite scenes from season one of Orange is the New Black was the first meeting of the Women’s Advisory Council (WAC), a group of inmates chosen to represent the lot. Prison newbie Piper comes in to Sergeant Healy’s office intending to change Litchfield Correctional Facility’s corrupt ways but instead ends up declaring “this whole WAC thing is basically bullshit” when she realizes the committee is an excuse for Healy to buy their loyalty with donuts. The other, more seasoned women had anticipated this and make realistic demands, like Taystee’s request for Fifty Shades of Grey. “I’ve got a copy,” Piper whispers to Taystee, and Maria leans in to add “Me too.”
It’s a moment that stopped me because the scene is one that viewers can relate to. Even prisoners can appreciated E. L. James’s erotica; “Incarcerated women: They’re just like us!” seems to be the message.
While there’s certainly some truth to the notion that sex writing can cross borders which other literature may not be able to, is Orange is the New Black’s depiction of female prisoners’ interest in erotica true to life? And what about the other moments of reading on the Netflix series — Piper’s fascination with Gone Girl and Taystee’s love of Harry Potter — are these on point? Just how realistic is the show when it comes to capturing the reality of libraries in women’s prison?
The History of Prison Libraries
Reading has played a role in prisoners’ lives since the conception of the penitentiary, explains University of Michigan Professor Megan Sweeney, who has done extensive research into women’s prison libraries and reading in women’s prisons across the United States. Sweeney developed an interest in the world of reading behind bars while volunteering with book clubs at women’s prisons in North Carolina. “Reading played a very big role in my own life,” she explains, “so I was trying to think about what that might be like in the space of a prison.”
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, prisoners were primarily given religious materials as a means of reflection and rehabilitation. These inmates were mostly white men; white women were disciplined at home, and slavery had not yet been abolished.
After the abolishment of slavery, the occupancy of Southern prisons shifted from almost entirely white to nearly all African American. “Former slaves were shunted into prisons for silly infractions,” Sweeney explains. Official emphasis on reading sharply declined with the racist assumption that African Americans were less rational and less capable of reform, and therefore less likely to benefit from literature.
From the late 19th century to the turn of the 20th, a rise in the importance of public libraries led to a revival of the prison library. They really again gained popularity in the late 1940s and ‘50s, when a theory called “bibliotherapy” developed by prison librarian Herman Spector argued that inmates could be “cured” through reading. Practiced through the mid-1970s, bibliotherapy involved radical screening and censorship of prison literature but also had an unintended consequence: Library culture flourished, especially in men’s prisons, and became a method of self-empowerment for the incarcerated.
After such self-empowerment lead to a prisoner’s rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, corrections officials began cracking down on libraries. There was in a change in attitude toward rehabilitation; rather than focus on personal development, officials asserted that change was futile. It was a shift that continues to have consequences to this day. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that denying prisoners in solitary confinement access to periodicals did not violate their constitutional rights. “Reading is a human right,” Sweeney argues, but it certainly isn’t treated as one.
Restrictions on Reading Materials
Even for prisoners who aren’t in solitary confinement, there are extreme restrictions on reading materials. Books with references to homosexual relationships, for example, are often banned. Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars and cofounder of Books Through Bars, cites women’s prisons in Gatesville, Texas as examples of institutions which outlaw homosexuality in reading material. There is also a fear that prison libraries might serve as a “gay space,” explains Sweeney; at one prison where she conducted research, women had to sign-up for library time in advance and were only allowed up to 30 minutes there to ensure that it didn’t become a “gay bar.”
Books that include issues of race similarly face censorship. Law says that some of the most-requested works from Books Through Bars, which sends free reading material to prisoners across the country, are ones on African American, Mexican and Aztec history (“People are trying to figure out what their roots are,” she explains), but such texts are heavily censored. Sweeney points to Toni Morrison as one author whose work is often banned as officials believe that books like Paradise, which references Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., could incite riots. Activist and former inmate George Jackson’s work, Law adds, is labelled gang-related material in the California penitentiary system; a prisoner caught with it could be punished with solitary confinement.
It all comes down to a “reductive” view of prisoners, Sweeney argues, pointing out that the assumption that individuals will mimic whatever they read is not one we would make about any readers other than the incarcerated.
Censorship doesn’t end there. Taystee’s Harry Potter habit may have been allowed at Litchfield, but Sweeney says that, at some prisons, the work (like any books on the Wicca religion) is banned for its depiction of witchcraft.
The Impact of Censorship on Women in Particular
The extensive list of banned books affects all prisoners but is especially difficult for females. According to Sweeney, not only do some men’s prisons tend to have a wider range of literature available, but the censorship of material that depicts sexual abuse can be particularly harmful to female prisoners, for whom sexual assault is a huge threat. (Many women in prison have also been victims of sexual abuse prior to incarceration.) Books on abuse are banned for the same reason texts on racism are: the fear that “people will perpetrate what they’re reading,” says Sweeney. And women feeling the effects of often sub-par medical care won’t get much help much help from the library either, as medical textbooks that can teach them useful skills, like how to check for breast cancer, are often banned for nudity.
Where is the Censorship Coming from?
Well, everywhere: prison psychologists, correctional officers and even librarians themselves. While restrictions on books are meant to follow a set of guidelines, censorship is often arbitrary. Sweeney offers the example of a prison “smut committee” which didn’t have time to meet regularly or read material and instead made decisions on the basis of genre and author. A copy of Maya Angelou’s work, for example, was disallowed because the Gauguin paintings within it included nudity. Women at the prison joked with Sweeney to choose books by their cover for their reading group because they knew that quick decisions were often based on face value. Some prison libraries have more thoughtful acquisition systems (one prison Sweeney worked at even made sure to have a collection of books with text in large print), but many censor and permit materials based on a system that is “astonishingly” random.
What are Prisoners Allowed to Read?
One permitted genre that’s popular in prison is true crime, which women often use as tools for understanding their own experiences. Sweeney describes how, in her research, female prisoners would add their own thoughts to what they saw as incomplete narratives, trying to explain why a woman might commit the story’s crime. Non-white readers would also think about their own experiences compared to those of white characters.
Because therapy is often unavailable in correctional facilities, books provide a method by which prisoners can learn to cope. In Sweeney’s experience, V. C. Andrews novels which include incestous relationships were incredibly popular among both incarcerated men and women because many of them had themselves suffered sexual abuse; the books were a method by which inmates learned to work through their situations and were “a way of seeing ‘I’m not alone.’”
Sweeney shares another story of a woman incarcerated for life at age 17 who had been subjected to sexual abuse prior to imprisonment. Because she had never experienced non-violent sexuality, the woman learned what intimacy could be through Sidney Sheldon’s romance novels, which also taught her how to love her own body.
So is there any truth behind the Orange is the New Black scene in which Tricia asks Piper, “You got anything sexy in there?” Kind of, but it’s not just because anyone can appreciate good erotica; it’s because, often, “anything sexy” is the only thing available. Romantic literature becomes not just a method of escapism but rather a tool by which incredibly resourceful incarcerated men and women use their time in prison for self-motivated recovery. In essence, they’re doing exactly what officials believe they are incapable of doing: reading between the lines. Prisoners use the limited materials that are available to them in a way that most readers would be unable to. In many ways, they’re reading on a deeper level than you ever did in your college literature course.
Which is why Sweeney takes issue with Piper Kerman’s memoir, on which the series Orange is the New Black is based. She claims Kerman “denigrates the other materials that are popular” with her fellow prisoners (labelling, for example, urban fiction as “ghetto trash”) without understanding the “central, fundamental, important role that reading plays.” Kerman isn’t any more of a “real reader” than other prisoners because, when Tricia asks her for erotica, she responds, “Um, I might have some Nicholson Baker.” She simply hasn’t taken the time to understand why “ghetto trash” might be so important to her fellow prisoners. Additionally, Kerman’s affluent background plays a huge role in her reading experience. Though prisoners may receive books in the mail, they must often be new or directly from the publisher, creating financial difficulties for family or friends who want to send reading material. The dismissal of urban fiction or romance novels in Kerman’s memoir is, Sweeney argues, “a dismissal of the women themselves.”
It’s also important to consider, Law points out, that many incarcerated men and women funneled through “prison-pipeline schools” haven’t had the same exposure to literature as Americans with access to better educational systems. Law herself attended one of these schools, a place she describes as not “necessarily the kind of place where kids would thrive” and “more like a dumping ground.” The overcrowded classes didn’t do much to teach students a love of literature, which, she believes, is one of the reasons (in addition to financial difficulties plaguing their families) that many of her friends dropped out of school and joined gangs. Yet, in visiting friends on Riker’s Island, Law noticed that many who had previously looked down on reading were “devouring books and educational material.” Classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, though, don’t necessarily translate. “People want to see themselves reflected in books,” Law explains, and it’s a value that certainly isn’t unique to the incarcerated reader. And Jane Austen? Her works illuminate many aspects of society, but the American penal system is not one of them.
Writing in Prison
Reading “absolutely does inspire women to do writing of their own,” says Sweeney. Unfortunately, writing is discouraged, as documentation of prison policies or conditions can be viewed as a legal threat by officials. Still, in 2003, Law began publishing Tenacious: A Zine of Arts and Writing by Women in Prison at the request of female prisoners in Oregon. Writing about their experiences for Tenacious provides an outlet for female prisoners who often don’t see their narratives represented in prison literature by men, explains Law. Most importantly, though, “women who go to prison are often the ones who are told over and over again that their voices don’t matter from the time that they’re small children.” For these women, seeing their work in print is a way to “subvert that mantra.” It’s something that even women who haven’t been incarcerated can likely relate to: “That act of being able to write about what they’re experiencing validates their worth.”
That’s why incarcerated women often risk punishment (sharing of belongings is forbidden in most prisons) to let friends borrow copies of Tenacious. It’s also the reason that reading in prisons is so incredibly important. Right now, most people in prison “aren’t learning anything new that will help them navigate the world,” says Law. After serving their sentences, “they’re spit back out” having not gained anything to help them join the workforce or even avoid further incarceration. “We have a population that comes out of prison with no more resources or abilities, but part of their lives missing,” argues Law. Sweeney agrees: “There’s been a tendency to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ so that we can ignore the ways we aren’t caring for members of our community.”
Sweeney and Law are both quick to point out the problem with the notion that, as Sweeney puts it, “somehow prison becomes something for us to pay attention to when there’s an elite white woman as our guide.” Still, Law believes that Orange is the New Black “has had a tremendous impact to opening the door to talking about women in prison, even if some of the representations are wrong” and often involve “lurid exaggerations.” (Law, like Sweeney, takes particular issue with the show’s representation of African American women.) Law “applauds the show for humanizing women in prison” and mentions that, in 2014, Kerman was invited to testify in a Supreme Court hearing on solitary confinement. The fact that she herself never experienced solitary confinement is problematic; however, she did use the opportunity to read testimony from women who had suffered it, highlighting the injustice of those placed in solitary confinement for reporting sexual abuse. The hearing was the first time that female solitary confinement was distinguished as an issue.
“It’s not enough to be like, ‘There’s a show now,’” Law rightfully points out. If you have an Orange is the New Black addiction, get involved: Donate to Books Through Bars, volunteer with the Women’s Prison Book Project or buy a copy of Tenacious. Reform won’t happen overnight, but supporting prison libraries and prison writing is a good place to start. As Sweeney explains, “Thinking about prisoners as fellow readers is a good way to be reminded of our shared humanity.”
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
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