My wife and I are enjoying “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix series about a middle-class woman’s 11-month incarceration for a long-past drug offense.
Written with wit and compassion, Jenji Kohan’s series is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who served most of her time at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. People who know more about such things than I do say the on-screen depiction of her experiences, often frightening and funny at the same time, rings all too true. It certainly is not hard to believe that some guards and inmates thirst to wield a pathetically small degree of power, while others in both categories try to survive with an intact sense of self by keeping a low profile.
Kerman herself has emerged as an advocate for prison and sentencing reform. She recently wrote an opinion column for The New York Times that decried plans to close most of the women’s facilities in Danbury, sending hundreds of women from the Northeast to prisons in other parts of the country, far from their families.
“This added geographic separation may as well be a second sentence for these women, who already have to make it through prison with limited visits from family, and for their children, who still need and want their moms,” Kerman wrote. “A mother’s incarceration has a devastating effect on her family, and experts say that maintaining contact with a parent in prison is critical to a child’s well-being.”
The Bureau of Prisons says it needs the space in Danbury to relieve overcrowding among men in the federal prison system. Since there are no other federal women’s prisons in the Northeast or Middle Atlantic states, many of the transferred women will end up far afield, in places like Alabama.
Kerman has found an ally, of sorts, in Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who recently announced his own initiative (no doubt vetted by the White House) to reduce drug prosecutions that can trigger harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
“Too many Americans go to prison for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said. He might have added that too many Americans end up with criminal records, and denied a variety of civil rights and public benefits, for the same reason that Kerman and others have gone to prison - because they run afoul of senselessly harsh drug laws. Yet Holder’s Justice Department continues to prosecute marijuana providers in states that have already decided to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes.
The attorney general and his boss, President Obama, see a political benefit in the selective enforcement of drug laws that were themselves a political response to drug-fueled crime in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Similarly, they see today a political benefit to the investigation and prosecution of bankers.
This is why, as The Wall Street Journal notes, JPMorgan Chase currently faces no fewer than seven separate investigations. One is a criminal probe over its multi-billion-dollar “London Whale” trading loss, which at other times would have been considered an issue for the bank’s directors and shareholders to address. Another is an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the bank’s practice of hiring well-connected young executives in China. If hiring decisions due to political connections are suddenly found to be illegal, nobody at the SEC - or in much of the rest of Washington - is likely to ever get another job in the private sector again.
So it’s just too bad if little children from Brooklyn have to spend days on a bus, traveling halfway across the country, in order to spend an hour with their mothers. Federal jailers have got to make room for all the bankers who they believe the public wants to put away. If you get the camera angle just right, those prison bars seen against the backdrop of an orange jumpsuit will look a lot like pinstripes.