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Orange is the New Black is back, and ‘timely,’ says Northeastern researcher

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Only 6.7 percent of federal inmates in America’s prisons are female, according to April 2015 data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And Piper Chapman is one of them.

Well, not exactly. Chapman is the main character in Orange is the New Black, the hit Netflix series set in a fictional federal women-only prison. The third season was released Thursday evening, with scores of fans expected to binge watch all 14 episodes. (Not to worry, no spoilers ahead!)

One person who won’t be among them though is Natasha Frost, an associate professor in Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “I hardly watch any criminal justice shows,” she said.

However, Frost noted that the show’s growing popularity has dovetailed with a rising academic interest in female incarceration trends in the U.S. She said that while the country’s overall number of incarcerated males has declined in recent years, the number of incarcerated female has remained steady—or in some instances seen a slight uptick—during that time period. For example, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released Thursday, the number of females confined in county and city jails increased by 18 percent between midyear 2010 and 2014, while the male population declined about 3 percent during the period.

“In a way, these data have made the show timely,” Frost said. “There’s a lot of interest in my field now about what’s driving the steady rate of women’s imprisonment.”

Frost’s research focuses primarily on the rates of incarceration across the U.S. states, and she has worked closely with the Women’s Prison Association to complete assessments of state-level variations in punitiveness toward women. A 2006 report she co-authored was the first to comprehensively chart out the dramatic increase in female incarceration in the U.S. between 1977 and 2004, according to the association’s Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.

Natasha Frost, associate professor and associate dean for academic programs in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Natasha Frost, associate professor and associate dean for academic programs in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What she’s learned about female-only prisons
Frost noted that most states, including Massachusetts, only have one prison for women. “There are fewer incarcerated women than men, so they’re put in one place,” she explained. This dynamic, she said, can be detrimental to female inmates by forcing a “one-size-fits-all” level of security in those facilities and not having the option of placing incarcerated women in a facility close to home.

Frost also emphasized that most states’ education and rehabilitation programs for inmates are primarily focused on men, and that many states either don’t have laws against or don’t enforce their laws barring the practice of shackling female prisoners during childbirth. However, she noted that female-only prisons typically run more parenting-related programs than male-only facilities.

As seen on TV
Though Frost isn’t an avid viewer of prison TV shows, she said Orange seems to have an element of realism that others, like Fox’s Prison Break, does not. “Orange is the New Black delves into the less glamorous, more realistic side to imprisonment,” she said. “I think it’s portrayed in a more complex way than some other shows.”

“What has made that show so popular is the element of realism that other shows have not had.”

Frost also counts three common misconceptions of prison among the general public:

1) Fear. Frost said that her students are often apprehensive about their first class trip to these facilities, while the general public thinks both corrections officers and inmates are in constant fear for their safety. Yes, fights break out all the time at prison and there is violence, including suicide, Frost explained, “but they are not constantly violent places.”

2) Frost noted that people who visit prisons, including her students, are often surprised when prisoners seem like regular people. “They are so shocked they seem like they could be someone they know,” she said. “That most prisoners are not these brutally violent people that are depicted on TV is an important thing that gets overlooked.”

3) The people who work in or run prisons dislike the inmates and always treat them poorly. “In every prison I’ve ever done research in, to a person, the people who run the prison are hoping that they’re doing some good,” she said.

Coming this fall
Frost and Carlos Monteiro, PhD’15, who this spring earned his doctorate in criminology and justice policy, will soon begin a three-year study supported by the National Institute of Justice that aims to identify high levels of stress and early indicators of stress in corrections officers. The study, which begins in August, will involve interviewing and reviewing personnel records for a randomly selected group of corrections officers at six different Massachusetts prisons—including Framingham, where the state’s only women’s prison is located.

One theory they plan to test is that absenteeism, or calling out sick a lot, could be one strong indicator.

“Being a CO is one of the most stressful occupations there is. There’s no doubt about that,” she said. “But those stress levels vary quite considerably among individuals and probably across the types of facilities, for instance super-max facilities compared to minimum-security prisons.”

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