It’s the same drama I witnessed during the six years I was incarcerated at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution. I watched married women sit with their husbands and kids on weekends in the visitors’ room, then return to their cells to have sex with their girlfriends, profess their jealous feelings, break up and make up with each other.
All in the course of an hour.
Plenty of times, the expression “gay for the stay, straight at the gate” applied, and I often witnessed gender roles in these relationships mirroring those of dysfunctional different-sex relationships. After watching many of these couples form, then fold, I’m convinced that in many cases, prison relationships got in the way of women dealing with the issues that led to them getting locked up in the first place.
And, contrary to what you see on OITNB, the rules of our correctional system don’t allow prison staff to — if you will — meddle in inmates’ personal lives in a way that they might proactively intervene to help them break the cycle they’re in. Unlike the show, it’s pretty much off-limits for someone like personally invested (but also homophobic and vindictive) officer Healy to invite inmates over to his office to talk.
Nearly all American prisons have strict rules against non-medical personnel accessing inmate files, being briefed on their personal histories or inquiring about inmates’ personal issues. In one sense, it makes sense: just think about the civilian employee accused of getting involved with last week’s prison break in Upstate New York. And there are instances where prisoner and staff physical safety require this buffer. But in another way, the line drawn between inmates and staff is an unnecessary barrier to rehabilitation.
Clearly, prison guards aren’t psychiatrists. But I can think of plenty of situations where, with some training (and, sometimes, plain common sense), staff could have counseled inmates about avoiding the pitfalls of their relationships if they’d been up to date on an inmate’s backstory before she entered prison. They could’ve discussed how the choices she was making behind bars closely tracked the choices that landed her in prison, and thus give her a chance to alter her decision-making. Unfortunately, the American prison management approach of avoiding “undue familiarity”— prohibiting staff from knowing meaningful details about an inmate’s life — makes that almost impossible.
Administrators will say that maintaining fairness and order means staff have to avoid unwarranted sympathy toward someone incarcerated for, let’s say, shoplifting; or inordinately harsh treatment for a woman imprisoned for something like going along with her boyfriend as he raped her daughter.
Which is how one woman I did time with wound up in prison. Once inside, she got involved with a woman accused of killing the teenage girl who’d slept with her boyfriend. Or another woman I know, convicted for helping her husband cover up killing his mistress, who eventually paired up with her cellmate, who was locked up for charges related to stabbing another woman. These types of relationships were incredibly volatile, involving verbal and physical abuse and constant manipulation.
The “importation” theory framed by sociologist Jocelyn Pollock-Byrne helps explain why women in prison gravitate to that familiar relationship drama. A study of female prisoners in Illinois revealed that 85 percent were victims of emotional abuse by an intimate partner prior to incarceration, 61 percent reported feeling controlled by that partner and 60 percent reported having felt unsafe with him. Women often recreate this emotional chaos that existed in their lives before they went inside.
These connections frequently develop out of genuine desire. But many times, the dynamic that emerges can also mirror antiquated and destructive husband/wife roles. The “man” in the relationship gets license to do whatever she wants to do, including violence and abuse towards her partner. Guards, however, are only authorized to punish certain types of behavior or acts of violence that they witness or become aware of—they’re officially discouraged from advising inmates, even informally, that they’re reverting to chaotic patterns that they brought to prison with them. Telling someone for their own good that “You’re doing it again” would reveal that they know something about them that they aren’t supposed to know in the first place.
Contrast our model with Norway’s, where guards aren’t required to be standoffish and convey indifference toward inmates. They can treat them as friends. They’re trained to guard prisoners’ physical safety and listen to them talk about their problems. They serve, in effect, as counselors. It might sound cushy, but it’s more humane — more civilized — and offers prisoners a better chance at meaningfully evolving toward a more social outlook.
This Illinois study found that 44 percent of the incarcerated women had, indeed, discussed prior physical or sexual abuse with prison staff and 93 percent of those women reported that prison staff were helpful and they felt better when they discussed past relationship problems with them. But the prison staff who listened to these women were technically breaking rules.
OITNB is pretty accurate about prisoners’ relationship drama, yet it’s off the mark in its portrayal of the extent to which staffers can intervene in that romantic commotion. But real prisons should have guards-cum-counselors.
If prison just winds up being a place where prisoners go to reenact the self-destructive roles and conduct that they did on the outside, it’s unreasonable to expect they’ll leave rehabilitated.