If you haven't yet seen Ava DuVernay's award-winning, Oscar-nominated expository documentary, "13th" (2016), it's on Netflix, and you should watch it as soon as possible.
Through the powerful medium of cinema, DuVernay examines how history has influenced and shaped the cancerous institutional racism and mass incarceration that has plagued the United States, home of the supposedly 'free,' for centuries.
The film's synthesis of graphic and monumental footage, lyrical rap, shocking statistics, and thought-provoking interviews delivers a touching and impactful blow to its audience, encouraging viewers to approach reality with a new conscious and informed perspective in the hope for some kind of national change.
The movie focuses primarily on the incarceration of African American males, noting that 1 in 3 black men have a lifetime likelihood of imprisonment, and that although this demographic makes up 6.5% of the US population, black men account for 40.2% of the prison population (The Bureau of Justice).
However, the population of women in prison is also increasing, in fact, between 1980 and 2014, the population grew by 700%, which is a higher rate than men (#cut50). A 2017 Prison Policy study found that out of the 219,000 incarcerated women in the United States, over 60% have not even been convicted, meaning most of them simply lack the funds to get themselves out of jail.
A separate report found that 80% of imprisoned women are either pregnant or current mothers, and are therefor almost always separated from their family and their children. Additionally, around 86% reported themselves as victims of sexual violence, and 76% were found to be victims of domestic abuse.
Proper women's health care is a fundamental human right and necessity to overall quality of life, but the prison system is stealing this away from those females who find themselves behind bars. Too often women in jail undergo mass traumatization that renders them unable to re-assimilate to life outside bars, or does so much harm to them that they develop crippling mental disorders which could cost them their lives.
In the past few months, a new movement emphasizing the need for incarcerated women's' rights has evolved called 'Dignity'.
The campaign, supported by a partnership between , #cut50, the We Are Here Movement and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, with the support of the Grammy Award-winning artist, Alicia Keys, aims to rally support and draw attention to the newly introduced 'Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act', backed by Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
Although the act addresses serious issues that often go unnoticed when it comes to criminal justice reform and offers solutions for a significant amount of the abuse and mistreatment women in prison face, there hasn't yet been a congressional hearing scheduled for it. The Dignity movement has started an online petition to apply pressure on Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to get the problem and the act heard.
One of the most popular TV shows in the past five years, especially for us millennials, is Jenji Kohan's 'Orange is the New Black', which can be found conveniently on Netflix. 'OITNB' is a comedy/drama which follows protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she faces time in an all-women's institution for a transportation of drugs she was involved with in her past.
Piper, accustomed to her, privileged, upper class 'life-in-a-bubble", takes a while to assimilate to the diverse, tense, and cut-throat nature of the prison, but the more aware and cognizant she becomes, so does the audience.
While the show does an exceptional job of emphasizing the humanity of each prisoner, accentuating how each woman has their own story and deserves respect and fair treatment, what's really impressive is how it contrasts these character developments with how immorally the treatment of the guards and how inhumane their living conditions are.
Yes, it has lots of humor, but the show still deals with serious issues anywhere ranging from sexual orientation, racism, religion, to rape, drug abuse, and obviously mistreatment and lack of fundamental human rights within the criminal justice system.
The show brought attention to many social justice issues and has coincided critically with many current movements in the US with the material in its episodes, however, arguably even more impactful, is the continued support for these causes by the actresses of OITNB in real life.
Prominent cast members Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Yael Stone, Samira Wiley, and many others all consistently promote campaigns for social justice (whether that be through LGBTQ, racial, or gender equality) on their social media and through appearances at demonstrations and events.
However, in keeping with their show's theme, I believe it's time that some of these incredible women should again use their celebrity for the greater good by standing behind this Dignity campaign and the fight for the rights of incarcerated women like the ones they fictitiously represent.
Because at the end of the day, orange should not be the new black. And if a woman does find herself behind bars, she deserves quality health care and treatment while she's suffering.
This cause definitely needs more awareness. Stemming from the broader concept of institutional racism, which makes it harder to chip away at, the more people who join together to work towards change the better chance we have of something actually being done on a legislative level. Hundreds of thousands of women's lives are at stake and it's important that we don't forget about them or let them struggle in silence.