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

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A wide angle shot of Associate Professor Natasha Frost

Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Natasha Frost explains that the Netflix show's growing pop­u­larity has dove­tailed with a rising aca­d­emic interest in female incar­cer­a­tion trends in the U.S.

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 inOrange 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.

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.

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

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.”

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.”

-By Greg St. Martin

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