Its public-radio jokes are so astute, and its leading ladies so comely, that it’s easy to forget that Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix original series, is based on the real-life experiences of former prisoner Piper Kerman. But yes, the small-screen intrigue is adapted from Kerman’s 2010 memoir, which documented her year at a women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. The book offers an amusing and insightful glimpse into one woman’s prison sentence while also shedding serious light on a misunderstood and growing population: female inmates.
According to the Women’s Prison Association, a New York-based service and advocacy organization, the number of women in prison has grown by 800 percent over the last three decades, while the male population of inmates has increased by only 416 percent. Of the 200,000 women in prisons or jails across America, about 140 are behind bars in Maine, a number that has risen every year since 2001.
This weekend, more than 400 correctional officers, social workers, public-policy advocates, and academics will gather in Portland to discuss and offer alternatives to the traditionally male-centric criminal justice system. The 15th Bi-Annual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference, which is the only professional conference focused exclusively on women and girls in the justice system, will feature a keynote speech from Piper Kerman herself, as well as workshops on topics such as: trauma-informed yoga for female offenders, how to empower Latina adolescents, gender-responsive practices to reduce recidivism, LGBTIQ (that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer) prison populations, moms in jail, and inmate employment.
“The system wasn’t necessarily designed for women,” says Erica King, justice policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service, who is serving as a spokesman for the conference. Now, we need to find ways to “make that system more gender-informed.” She points to Maine’s successful Woman Offender Case Management Model as an example of a “gender-responsive” program that is “relational, strengths-based, trauma-informed, culturally competent, and holistic.”
Amanda Woolford, of the state Department of Corrections’ Women’s Center, says that addressing the needs of female prisoners has been a “priority” under the current administration. She notes that women and girls aren’t treated “specially — just differently.”
Several AJFO conference events will be open to the public, for a $5-10 suggested donation; all events are at the Holiday Inn by the Bay:
On Sunday, October 6, at 5 pm, there will be a film screening of the documentary The Gray Area: Feminism Behind Bars, about the experience of studying feminism while incarcerated.
On Tuesday, October 8, at 4:30 pm, Piper Kerman will sign copies of her book for the general public.
On Wednesday, October 9, at 7 pm, filmmaker Jenifer McShane will be present at the screening of her movie, Mothers of Bedford, about the challenges of being a mother while in jail (which is the case for 80 percent of female inmates in the United States)
The very next week, the non-profit Maine Inside Out, which facilitates theater performances among current and former inmates, will host a four-day symposium exploring “the culture of punishment.” Featuring a workshop focused on creating a positive culture in schools, and a keynote by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, the event runs from October 15 to 18. Visit maineinsideout.org for more information.