Caring about female prisoners is a religious duty for women of faith

Thursday, August 15, 2013

“Orange Is the New Black”: Incarceration in America
Writing for the Jewish Channel on Patheos, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer explains a puzzling passage from Deuteronomy (21:1-9) and relates it to the new and acclaimed Netflix drama series, “Orange Is the New Black,” which takes place in a women’s prison. Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer says we need to ask ourselves as a society whether “our sprawling penal system is, in general, the most effective and humane means of achieving public safety.” She sees the Deuteronomy passage as indicating our responsibility as a community in dealing with crime, the people we incarcerate, their families, those who are employed to maintain the penal system, and former prisoners as they try to adjust to life after prison in a culture that makes re-entry difficult. She writes: “The idea of communal responsibility is an intriguing one. We must answer as a society not only for what we do, but also for what we fail to do. ‘Orange Is the New Black’ should make us ask questions: How did we get to a situation where we have more crime than other Western countries and, far in excess of the amount of violent crime, more people locked up in prisons? There are beautiful scenes in ‘Orange,’ moments of insight or camaraderie, moments that speak of redemption and transcendence. But the strength of both the book and the series is the clarity with which it makes its central point. Those moments occur despite, not because of, the way in which the prison is run.”

Related.   “Orange is the New Black” is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman who lived the experience portrayed in the Netflix series. Just this week, the New York Times featured an opinion piece by Kerman expressing her distress at learning that more than a thousand women will be moved from the women’s prison where she had been incarcerated in Danbury, Connecticut,  to open more space for men, easing the overcrowding in men’s prisons.  The women will be sent far away to other states, making it extremely difficult for family members (including the young children of many of the women) to be able to visit them. Other journalists have been making us aware of other prison-related issues that should deeply concern us as feminists of faith. An article from The Guardian, for example, points out the inhumane practice of cuffing and shackling prisoners during childbirth. Sojourners recently featured an interview about the work of Susan Burton who is helping women find shelter and build new dreams and a new life after serving time in prison.  A Washington Post essay uses photos, charts, and statistics to analyze major themes of “Orange Is the New Black,” including demographics (age, racial and ethnic identification, socioeconomic background, etc.), and various other facts of interest and concern (including the situation of trans people in prison).  For more information, listen to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air as she interviews both the “Orange Is the New Black” memoir writer, Piper Kerman, and Jenji Kohan, who adapted the book to create the Netflix series.  I watched the entire 13 episodes right after it was released and highly recommend it for both the information it provides and the new understanding and compassion toward female prisoners that it fosters.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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