I worked as a psychologist in a federal women's prison for thirteen years. It was a fascinating place to work. Prison is intriguing to many people and so it's no wonder that "Orange is the New Black" is such a success although I would have called it "Khaki is not a fashion statement" since khaki is what all the women at federal prison are wearing this year, next year, and the last year twenty years at least.
I thought I'd share some of my personal experiences with you of doing time on the installment plan and we can chat about the state of women's prisons. In my next several blog posts I hope we share what we love about OITNB, along with some of the issues it brings up with regard to media portrayal of women in prison, particularly with regard to lesbians.
Today, let's discuss the fear that is at the forefront of the heterosexual male counselor's mind in OITNB, the sexual conversion, or perversion, of otherwise straight women in prison.
Yes, there were many female inmates who did have their first same-sex relationship behind bars. This is called "gay for the stay." I'll come back to this in another blog. Today I want to talk about the disproportionate number of gay women behind bars, especially those who are more masculine and identified as butch/stud or "aggressive."
Prison is the place where we find the oppressed of the oppressed, so it's not surprising that I found that there was a disproportionate number of masculine women of color from working class backgrounds. These individuals were often the victims of homophobia and hate crimes on the street. They were also disenfranchised in terms of employment because of their appearance.
Of course, one pathway to potential empowerment would have been to go into the military where they could be their bold, masculine, and/or butch selves. However, a military career wasn't an option until recently for out gay men and lesbians. Similar to Brandon Teena, many of these individuals were unable to get work, and so criminal activities (i.e. drug dealing, check fraud, etc.) were easier ways to support themselves.
For some butch lesbians and FTMS, prison was a safer place for them then the streets, small towns, or Native American reservations they were from, where they were targeted or rejected by family and community. In prison, butches/studs/pre-op FTMs get their pick of women, have a roof over their heads, can work in the prison's facilities department doing construction, electrical work, plumbing, etc. Also their chances of getting sexually assaulted or physically attacked for being gay in prison are slim to none.
Additionally, in the prison environment, it is much more acceptable than in the mainstream environment for fellow inmates to refer to these individuals by their masculine nick names like "Slim" or "Lucky" and even use male pronouns that would raise eyebrows in the free world.
It's unfortunate that prisons, a place where one's freedoms are taken away, house a disproportionate percentage of lesbians. I hope OITNB will find a way to weave this fact into next year's season.