Powerless in Prison: Sexual Abuse Against Incarcerated Women

Nicole Summer

Surviving a sexual assault and then navigating the health care system to receive adequate counseling and reproductive medical attention is daunting enough for those who walk freely on the outside. For women in prison, these hurdles can seem insurmountable.

"I am 7 months pregnant [and] I got pregnant here during a sexual assault. I have been sexually assaulted here numerous times! The jailers here are the ones doing it!"

— excerpt from a letter from an inmate in a jail in Alabama to Stop Prisoner Rape.

Surviving a sexual assault and then navigating the health care system to receive adequate counseling and reproductive medical attention is daunting enough for those who walk freely on the outside. For women in prison, these hurdles can seem insurmountable. Unfortunately, sexual assault, particularly guard-on-prisoner sexual assault, is a fact of life for many incarcerated women, and the ensuing implications for their reproductive health are many.

The power dynamics in prison severely disadvantage the prisoner, who is at the absolute mercy of her guards and correctional officers, relying on them for necessities such as food and for the small privileges and luxuries such as cigarettes. Guards have unlimited access to prisoners and their living environment, including where they sleep and where they bathe. With such an imbalance of power, the likelihood of sexual assault increases. Sexual abuse in prison can range from forcible rape to the trading of sex for certain privileges. While the latter may seem consensual to some, the drastic power disparity makes the idea of "consent" almost laughable. In fact, all 50 states have laws that make any sexual contact between inmates and correctional officers illegal, "consensual" or not. "It's always unacceptable and illegal," says Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.

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While guard-on-prisoner sexual assault is common, putting a number on the instances is difficult because so many assaults are unreported. As with sexual assault on the outside, many survivors in prison are ashamed and embarrassed to come forward, fear that their claim will be hard to prove or fear that their attackers will retaliate. In prison the fear of retaliation is heightened, as the prisoner continues to live with her attacker controlling her daily life. And inmates who report a sexual assault are frequently put in segregated isolation, ostensibly to protect them from retaliation, but this isolation can be emotionally and physically draining, and well, terribly isolating. And many women in prison have been sexually abused in the past, before they were incarcerated, or are accustomed to using sex to get what they want, on the inside or the outside. "A lot of women don't view it as abuse," says Deborah Golden, staff attorney at the D.C. Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. About 80 percent of women inmates have already experienced some kind of sexual or physical abuse before prison, says Sarah From, director of public policy and communications at the Women's Prison Association.

Despite the widespread underreporting, some statistics exist. First, there are about 200,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. (in federal, state, local and immigration detention settings), a number that is growing exponentially and that makes up about 10 percent of the total prison population. Amnesty International reports that in 2004, a total of 2,298 allegations of staff sexual misconduct against both male and female inmates were made, and more than half of these cases involved women as victims, a much higher percentage than the 10 percent that women comprise of the total prison population. It can vary from institution to institution, but in the worst prison facilities, one in four female inmates are sexually abused in prison, says Stannow.

The risk of pregnancy as the result of a sexual assault is, of course, a concern for many survivors, incarcerated or not. But obtaining emergency contraception or an abortion, if one is desired, may be more difficult for women on the inside. Because many inmates do not report the sexual assault immediately (if at all), using emergency contraception is usually not possible, if it is even available. While prisoners' rights and reproductive rights organizations report hearing few complaints about emergency contraception being inaccessible to women in prison, they are unconvinced that it is widely available. Golden believes emergency contraception should be made readily available and should be on the prison's prescription formulary.

Unlike access to emergency contraception, access to abortion by inmates has seen its way through the courts. Crucially, women do not lose their right to decide to have an abortion just because they are in prison; rather, the issue is how the prison accommodates (or refuses to accommodate) her decision. "There are constitutional minimums," says Diana Kasdan, staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. Although the details can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, prisons must provide access to an abortion if one is desired. "Providing access" can range from providing transportation to an off-site medical facility, to allowing for a furlough or to providing abortions on-site, although Kasdan says she has not heard of the latter. A court in Arizona recently ruled that a court order to obtain transportation for an abortion cannot be required, and a federal court in Missouri ruled last year that a prison cannot refuse to pay for the transportation of inmates to receive abortions.

Paying for the abortion itself is yet another issue for women inmates, and it is a patchwork quilt of inconsistency throughout the states. Some state prison systems fund abortions, some states refuse to pay for what they consider "elective" abortions and some states simply have no official written policy, research by Rachel Roth has shown. Only two states specifically mention sexual assault in their prison abortion policies; both Minnesota and Wisconsin allow for government-subsidized abortions when the pregnancy results from a sexual assault. The federal Bureau of Prisons also pays for the abortion in the case of sexual assault.

In prison, the possibility of a coerced abortion can hang over an inmate who discovers she is pregnant as the result of a sexual assault by a guard. In a letter to Stop Prisoner Rape, one inmate writes:

A rumor had spread through the facility that I was pregnant. I'm not sure how the rumor got started, but medical staff came to my cell and forced me to provide a urine sample that they could use to test for pregnancy. They did not ask me any questions, offer me any support, or seem at all concerned for my well-being. That same night, three guards, two female and one male, came into my cell, sprayed me in the face with mace, handcuffed me behind my back, threw me down on the ground, and said, "We hear you are pregnant by one of ours and we're gonna make sure you abort." The two female guards began to kick me as the male guard stood watch. The beating lasted about a minute, but it felt like ten or more. Afterwards, the male officer uncuffed me and they left.

The prisoner's rights as a mother, if she becomes pregnant and chooses not to terminate the pregnancy, are complicated, to say the least. Few jurisdictions allow women to keep their children in prison with them once they are born. Frequently, if there is no family member on the outside to take the child, the child will enter the foster care system, and the state will move to terminate the parental rights of the mother because she is absent. The parental rights of mothers in prison is a fraught and complicated issue, one that goes well beyond the particular problem of sexual assault by guards.

Access to counseling after a sexual assault in prison is virtually nonexistent. An inmate cannot simply call a hotline, since all calls are monitored and she has no privacy. When one inmate sought mental health care from prison services after a sexual assault, she was offered sleeping pills, says Golden. "There's no capacity in prisons for talk therapy," she says. And any counseling inside the prison is not confidential. Some community therapists will come in on visiting days to counsel an inmate, but usually only at the behest of a lawyer, says Golden.

Despite the overwhelming power imbalance, guard-on-prisoner sexual assault is preventable, insists Stannow. Efforts such as making sure the staff is well trained, educating the prisoners about their rights, eliminating impunity for guards and following up on reports of sexual abuse would go a long way toward prevention, she says. Congress had similar goals in mind when it unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. PREA aims to establish zero-tolerance standards of sexual assaults, to increase data and information on the occurrence of prison sexual assault and to develop and implement national standards for the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of prison sexual assault. "PREA has been enormously important in ending sexual violence in detention," said Stannow. "Congress made clear that it's a problem that must be addressed." Perhaps most excitingly, PREA created a federal commission to generate binding national standards regarding sexual violence in detention. But "the existence of the law doesn't mean the problem is gone," Stannow continues. "Now we need to make sure that we build on the momentum of the law to make every corrections system in the country acknowledge that sexual violence in detention is a major problem, and does everything it can to end it."

One of the largest obstacles to eliminating prison sexual assault is the "social invisibility" of prisons. The general public neither knows nor cares about the plight of the incarcerated, and thus cannot demand that its government properly protect prisoners' bodily integrity and rights. Perhaps PREA is the beginning of the end of this social invisibility.

Roundups Politics

Trump Taps Extremists, Anti-Choice Advocates in Effort to Woo Evangelicals

Ally Boguhn

Representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to its shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the organization's president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance at a question-and-answer event on Tuesday.

Making a play to win over the evangelical community, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump met with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders on Tuesday for a question-and-answer event in New York City and launched an “evangelical advisory board” to weigh in on how he should approach key issues for the voting bloc.

The meeting was meant to be “a guided discussion between Trump and diverse conservative Christian leaders to better understand him as a person, his position on important issues and his vision for America’s future,” according to a press release from the event’s organizers. As Rewire previously reported, numerous anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ leaders—many of them extremists—were slated to attend.

Though the event was closed to the media, Trump reportedly promised to lift a ban on tax-exempt organizations from politicking and discussed his commitment to defending religious liberties. Trump’s pitch to conservatives also included a resolution that upon his election, “the first thing we will do is support Supreme Court justices who are talented men and women, and pro-life,” according to a press release from United in Purpose, which helped organize the event.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, told the New York Times that the business mogul also reiterated promises to defund Planned Parenthood and to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unsupported claim that a fetus feels pain at that point in a pregnancy.

In a post to its website, representatives from radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue praised Trump’s commitment to their shared values during the event. “I’m very impressed that Mr. Trump would sit with conservative leaders for multiple questions, and then give direct answers,” said the group’s president, Troy Newman, who was in attendance. “I don’t believe anything like this has ever happened.” The post went on to note that Trump had also said he would appoint anti-choice justices to federal courts, and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Just after the event, Trump’s campaign announced the formation of an evangelical advisory board. The group was “convened to provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to Evangelicals and other people of faith in America,” according to a press release from the campaign. Though members of the board, which will lead Trump’s “much larger Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee to be announced later this month,” were not asked to endorse Trump, the campaign went on to note that “the formation of the board represents Donald J. Trump’s endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”

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Much like the group that met with Trump on Tuesday, the presumptive Republican nominee’s advisory board roster reads like a who’s-who of conservatives with radical opposition to abortion and LGBTQ equality. Here are some of the group’s most notable members:

Michele Bachmann

Though former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann once claimed that “women don’t need anyone to tell them what to do on health care” while arguing against the ACA during a 2012 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, her views on the government’s role in restricting reproductive health and rights don’t square away with that position.

During a December 2011 “tele-town hall” event hosted by anti-choice organization Personhood USA, Bachmann reportedly falsely referred to emergency contraception as “abortion pills” and joined other Republican then-presidential candidates to advocate for making abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. During the event, Bachmann touted her support of the anti-choice group’s “personhood pledge,” which required presidential candidates to agree that:

I stand with President Ronald Reagan in supporting “the unalienable personhood of every American, from the moment of conception until natural death,” and with the Republican Party platform in affirming that I “support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment protections apply to unborn children.

Such a policy, if enacted by lawmakers, could outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception. A source from Personhood USA told the Huffington Post that Bachmann “signed the pledge and returned it within twenty minutes, which was an extraordinarily short amount of time.”

Bachmann has also claimed that God told her to introduce a measure to block marriage equality in her home state, that being an LGBTQ person is “ part of Satan,” and that same-sex marriage is a “radical experiment that will have “profound consequences.”

Mark Burns

Televangelist Mark Burns has been an ardent supporter of Trump, even appearing on behalf of the presidential candidate at February’s Faith and Family Forum, hosted by the conservative Palmetto Family Council, to deliver an anti-abortion speech.

In March, Burns also claimed that he supported Donald Trump because Democrats like Hillary Clinton supported Black “genocide” (a frequently invoked conservative myth) during an appearance on the fringe-conspiracy program, the Alex Jones show. “That’s really one of my major platforms behind Donald Trump,” said Burns, according to the Daily Beast. “He loves babies. Donald Trump is a pro-baby candidate, and it saddens me how we as African Americans are rallying behind … a party that is okay with the genocide of Black people through abortion.”

Burns’ support of Trump extended to the candidate’s suggestion that if abortion was made illegal, those who have abortions should be punished—an issue on which Trump has repeatedly shifted stances. “If the state made it illegal and said the premature death of an unborn child constituted murder, anyone connected to that crime should be held liable,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal in April. “If you break the law there should be punishment.”

Kenneth and Gloria Copeland

Kenneth and Gloria Copeland founded Kenneth Copeland Ministries (KCM), which, according to its mission statement, exists to “teach Christians worldwide who they are in Christ Jesus and how to live a victorious life in their covenant rights and privileges.” Outlining their opposition to abortion in a post this month on the organization’s website, the couple wrote that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. “As the author of life, God considers an unborn child to be an eternal being from the moment of its conception,” explained the post. “To deliberately destroy that life before birth would be as much premeditated murder as taking the life of any other innocent person.”

The article went on to say that though it may “seem more difficult in cases such as those involving rape or incest” not to choose abortion, “God has a plan for the unborn child,” falsely claiming that the threat of life endangerment has “been almost completely alleviated through modern medicine.”

The ministries’ website also features Pregnancy Options Centre, a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) in Vancouver, Canada, that receives “financial and spiritual support” from KCM and “its Partners.” The vast majority of CPCs  regularly lie to women in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Kenneth Copeland, in a June 2013 sermon, tied pedophilia to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, going on to falsely claim that the ruling did not actually legalize abortion and that the decision was “the seed to murder our seed.” Copeland blamed legal abortion for the country’s economic woes, reasoning that there are “several million taxpayers that are not alive.”

Copeland, a televangelist, originally supported former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) in the 2016 Republican primary, claiming that the candidate had been “called and appointed” by God to be the next president. His ministry has previously faced scrutiny about its tax-exempt status under an investigation led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) into six ministries “whose television preaching bankrolled leaders’ lavish lifestyles.” This investigation concluded in 2011, according to the New York Times.

James Dobson

James Dobson, founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family (FoF), previously supported Cruz in the Republican primary, releasing an ad for the campaign in February praising Cruz for defending “the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage.” As Rewire previously reported, both Dobson and his organization hold numerous extreme views:

Dobson’s FoF has spent millions promoting its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, even dropping an estimated $2.5 million in 2010 to fund an anti-choice Super Bowl ad featuring conservative football player Tim Tebow. Dobson also founded the … Family Research Council, now headed by Tony Perkins.

Dobson’s own personal rhetoric is just as extreme as the causes his organization pushes. As extensively documented by Right Wing Watch,

Dobson has:

Robert Jeffress

A Fox News contributor and senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress once suggested that the 9/11 attacks took place because of legal abortion. “All you have to do is look in history to see what God does with a nation that sanctions the killing of its own children,” said Jeffress at Liberty University’s March 2015 convocation, according to Right Wing Watch. “God will not allow sin to go unpunished and he certainly won’t allow the sacrifice of children to go unpunished.”

Jeffress spoke about the importance of electing Trump during a campaign rally in February, citing Democrats’ positions on abortion rights and Trump’s belief “in protecting the unborn.” He went on to claim that if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Hillary Clinton were elected, “there is no doubt you’re going to have the most pro-abortion president in history.”

After Trump claimed women who have abortions should be punished should it become illegal, Jeffres rushed to defend the Republican candidate from bipartisan criticism, tweeting: “Conservatives’ outrage over @realDonaldTrump abortion comments hypocritical. Maybe they don’t really believe abortion is murder.”

As documented by Media Matters, Jeffress has frequently spoken out against those of other religions and denominations, claiming that Islam is “evil” and Catholicism is “what Satan does with counterfeit religion.” The pastor has also demonstrated extreme opposition to LGBTQ equality, even claiming that same-sex marriage is a sign of the apocalypse.

Richard Land

Richard Land, now president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, was named one of Time Magazine‘s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005 for his close ties with the Republican party. While George W. Bush was president, Land participated in the administration’s “weekly teleconference with other Christian conservatives, to plot strategy on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.” Bush also appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2002.

According to a 2002 article from the Associated Press, during his early academic career in Texas, “Land earned a reputation as a leader among abortion opponents and in 1987 became an administrative assistant to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who fought for laws to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion” in the state.

Land had previously expressed “dismay” that some evangelicals were supporting Trump, claiming in October that he “take[s] that [support] as a failure on our part to adequately disciple our people.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

The Prison Overcrowding Problems on ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Reflect a Real-Life Crisis

Victoria Law

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn't limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

“I’ve been in Litchfield for a while now,” says Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling) in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, “and I’ve started to feel unsafe lately.”

Season four of OITNB has taken on prison overcrowding. Viewers may recall that, in the last season, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary was taken over by a corporation, transforming it from an already underfunded state prison to a private facility whose sole purpose is the bottom line. That means each woman inside Litchfield has become a commodity—and the more commodities locked inside, the more profit the corporation receives.

In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn’t limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.

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In the latest season of OITNB, viewers see some of the potential consequences of prison overcrowding: It is accompanied by increased threats of violence and abuse, as people, packed like sardines, step on each other, jostle each other, and can’t get away from each other. Supplies, such as soap, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, are never in abundance in a prison setting; they become even more scarce as the number of people clamoring for them soar. Even food, which prisons are required to provide in the form of regular meals, becomes in short supply.

A scarcity of resources isn’t the only problem in Litchfield. Again and again, we see long lines for the bathrooms and showers. When the prison installs “porta potties” in the yard, there are long lines for those as well. “Too many people in here, everybody getting on each other’s nerves,” remarks Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), another of the show’s long-term characters. Conflicts emerge as women struggle to navigate daily living in a narrow room with multiple other women. Some of these may seem small, like the nightly snoring of a new bunkmate keeping another one awake all night. But these seemingly inconsequential issues lead to larger ones, such as sleep deprivation. In the show, women resort to comic measures; but these conflicts, especially in a closed and cramped environment, can quickly erupt into violence.

This is the case in Litchfield as well. Conflicts quickly turn into threats or actual attacks. While prison socializing has always been racially segregated, some of it now becomes racialized and racist. Some of the new white women, noting that they are in the minority among the large numbers of Latina and Black women being shuttled in, are unwittingly pushed by Piper to form a white power group. They hurl racist epithets at the women of color and, when they spot a lone Dominican woman on the stairs, move together to attack her.

Prison staff perpetuate the violence, using their authority to do so. They begin their own version of “stop and frisk” in the prison’s hallways, targeting the growing Latina population. While the body searches in and of themselves are humiliating, the (male) guards also take advantage of the additional security measure to grope and further abuse the women. They even force women into fighting, which they then bet on—a nod to the actual allegations of guard-instigated gladiator fights in California’s prisons and the San Francisco County Jail.

Although not everything in OITNB is realistic, the problems the show portrays in this respect reflect the frequent results of overcrowding—and some of its causes. As OITNB notes repeatedly throughout the season, private prisons receive money per person, so it’s in the company’s interest to lock up as many people as possible.

In 2014, for example, private prison contractor GEO Group contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to open and operate a women’s prison north of Bakersfield, California. Under the terms of the contract, California pays GEO Group $94.50 per person per day for the first 260 women sent to that prison. The contract also includes an opportunity for the company to expand its prison by another 260 beds—although, if it does that, the state only pays $86.95 per person per day. But even at that lower rate, doubling the occupancy increases the private prison’s overall four-year revenue from roughly $38 million to $66 million. (As of June 8, 2016, that prison held 223 people.)

But prison overcrowding isn’t limited to private prisons. In some states, the “tough on crime” laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s are still leading to crammed public prisons today.

California, for instance, is one of the most egregious examples of such legislation leading to prison overcrowding. Years of extreme overcrowding ultimately led to Brown v. Plata, a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s severely crowded prisons prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care, thus violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered California to decrease its state prison population from 180 to 137.5 percent capacity.

To do so, the CDCR took several actions: It began shipping thousands of men to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In addition, it converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of its three women’s prisons, into a men’s prison, and transferred the approximately 1,000 women there from Valley State Prison for Women to two other prisons—the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW). It also opened the 523-bed Folsom Women’s Facility in January 2013.

Despite these efforts, overcrowding continues to plague California’s prisons. As of June 8, CCWF was at 143.6 percent capacity; while CIW was at 129 percent capacity.

Even before the influx of women from Valley State Prison, though, the numbers of people packed into CIW had led to reports of violence from inside. In 2012, Jane, who has been incarcerated at CIW for several years, wrote in a letter that was later reprinted in Tenacious, “When eight women of widely disparate ages, social backgrounds, ethnicities and interests share a 246-square foot cell, there are bound to be conflicts, and there is little tolerance for any behaviors that are different.” She recounted a woman named Anna who spoke little English and was mentally ill.

“Little Anna has spent the last several weeks being alternately beaten up by her cellmates, who don’t understand her behaviors, or drugged into a drooling stupor in the Specialty Care Unit,” Jane wrote. According to Jane, housing staff ignored the violence. When Anna tried to complain to a higher-ranking staff member, Jane said that correctional officers, “angry at her inability to follow directions, threw her to the floor, cuffed her hands behind her back and twisted her arms until she screamed in pain.”

Two years later, after women from Valley State Prison were moved to CIW, Jane wrote in a second letter published in Tenacious, “What this overcrowding has created in terms of living conditions is continued horrendous health care and failed mental health care.”

The situation seems to have persisted. As noted earlier, women have also reported a pervading sense of hopelessness, exacerbated in part by the inability to access mental health care. CIW has a suicide rate that reportedly is eight times the national rate for women behind bars. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. As of June 16, 2016, there have been two successful suicides and nine attempts. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it,” one woman told Rewire one month before her friend’s suicide this past April.

In many men’s prisons, overcrowding is even more severe. Valley State Prison, now a men’s prison, is currently at 172 percent capacity. The vast majority of the state’s other male prisons operate at over 100 percent capacity.

But it’s not just California that suffers from prison overcrowding. Oklahoma, which has especially harsh sentencing laws—particularly for drug offenses—has the country’s highest rate of incarceration for women. And the number of those behind bars continues to rise: In 2014, the state imprisoned 2,979 women, a 9.3 percent increase from the 2,702 women imprisoned the year before.

Mary Fish has been incarcerated at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC) for the past 15 years. She told Rewire that prison administrators recently added 40 more beds to each unit, increasing its capacity from 1,055 to 1,291. (As of June 13, 1,250 women were incarcerated at MBCC.) This has led to competition, even for state-guaranteed items like cafeteria food (especially fresh fruit, which is infrequent in many prisons). “This overcrowding is all about who can get up there and bull dog [sic] their way to the front of the line,” she wrote in a letter to Rewire. She said that two days earlier, the prison’s cafeteria was serving bananas with lunch. But, even though each woman only received one banana, by the time she reached the window, all of the bananas were gone.

“It really gives new meaning to overcrowded,” Fish reflected. “Bodies rubbing in passing, kind of space-less, boundary-less environment. I’ve never had so much human contact in the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated.”

The state’s medium-security women’s prison, the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (capacity 988) currently holds 1,010 women. “There are huge overcrowded dorms crammed with bunk beds and steel lockers,” wrote “Gillian” in a letter to Rewire, later printed in Tenacious, shortly after being transferred from MBCC to Eddie Warrior. “The population is young, transient and the majority are disrespectful. They have no clue how to live successfully in a crowded communal environment. The dorms are filthy, loud and chaotic for the most part. There is no peace.”

The situations in Oklahoma and California are only two examples of how state prison overcrowding affects those locked up inside. Institutions in other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska, have also long been overcrowded.

On OITNB, the private corporation in charge plans to bring even more women to Litchfield to increase revenue. But in real life, as state budgets grow leaner and prison justice advocates continue to press for change, local legislators are beginning to rethink their incarceration policies. In California, a recently proposed ballot measure would change parole requirements and allow for early release for those with nonviolent convictions if they enroll in prison education programs or earn good behavior credits. If the ballot garners at least 585,407 voter signatures, it will be added to the state’s November ballot.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, where the state now spends $500 million a year on incarceration, former Republican house speaker and leader of the coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele is pushing for two ballot measures—one that allows reclassifying offenses like drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, and another that sets up a new fund that would redirect the money spent on incarceration for low-level offenses back to community programs focused on rehabilitation and treating the root causes of crime.

Still, these changes have been slow in coming. In the meantime, individuals continue to be sent to prison, even if it means more bunk beds and less space to move (not to mention the devastation caused by breaking up families). “Last week, Oklahoma County brought a whole big RV-looking bus to deliver a bunch of women here to [Assessment and Reception],” Fish, at MBCC, noted in a May 2016 letter to Rewire.

The following week, she told Rewire, “They keep crowding us. There’s no room to even walk on the sidewalks.” Fish regularly reads the local newspapers in the hopes of learning about pending legislation to ease overcrowding and allow for early release. Though the senate recently passed four bills that may reduce the number of people being sent to prison, she feels that the new laws won’t help those currently trapped inside. “It’s getting pretty awful, and it looks like no bills passed to help us so there’s NO END IN SIGHT.”