The University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender held a panel discussion Monday titled “Incarcerated Women: A Conversation About Realities.”

The event was held in part to provide context for Tuesday’s campus lecture by Piper Kerman, author of “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Kerman’s memoir was the inspiration for the Netflix series adaptation, “Orange is the New Black.”

Members of the panel discussed the variety of challenges unique to female inmates. Some panelists emphasized the abuses that incarcerated women experience are precisely because of their gender.

According to panelist and Law Prof. Amanda Alexander, a Soros Justice Fellow in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, incarcerated women often face losing parental rights over their children, and said the average sentence length for a parent in Michigan is three to four years.

Alexander also discussed the negligible rights afforded to inmates who give birth during their sentence. She said, in Michigan, women who give birth in prison have very little access to prenatal care and are only allotted 24 hours to spend with their newborn in the hospital after delivery. Additionally, some other states allow incarcerated women to pump breast milk for their children, but Michigan does not.

The conversation turned multiple times to the “wars on drugs and crime” in the United States, and how these policies have caused higher incarceration rates of both men and women.

Carol Jacobsen, a panelist and professor of both women’s studies and Art & Design, noted that many women who commit serious crimes such as homicide do so as an act of survival. The murder may have been a response to life-threatening physical or sexual abuse, or to issues related to poverty or drugs.

Panelist Heather Ann Thompson, an Afroamerican and African Studies professor, echoed this point.

“Murder is murder, isn’t it?” Thompson asked. “Or is it?”  

The panelists unanimously condemned the closed nature of prisons. They discussed how difficult it is for researchers and visitors to gain access to prisons and how this has resulted in critical gaps in knowledge about the lived experience of prisoners.

“In our society, we take it as normal that prisons are these closed spaces,” Thompson said. “(Prisons are) so closed that there is no data on how many hours prisoners spend in isolation — no one has access to collect it.”

The panelists pointed out that though Michigan’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, is 15 minutes away from the University’s campus, many University students have not heard of it.

Panelist Ruby Tapia, a professor of women’s studies and English, said it is important to analyze representations of lived experiences of incarcerated women, including but not limited to “Orange is the New Black.”

Moderator Valerie Jenness, a senior visiting scholar at the University’s Institute on Women and Gender and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, asked panelists about a passage from Kerman’s memoir.

In the passage, Kerman tells the story of a newly released prisoner who told local media she had a “magnificent” and positive experience in prison. Some inmates still incarcerated in the prison were angry with this description because they felt it was false.

Tapia noted that some women who have been incarcerated have expressed the same feelings toward “Orange is the New Black” — that the narrative represented is a narrow one that may not encompass the multitude of lived experiences.

Kerman’s address begins Tuesday at 5:10 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium. 

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