6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV


Thanks to Piper Kerman's best-selling book, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, and the Netflix series it spawned, women's prisons have become a hot-button issue. That's the best way to address serious cultural failings: sending in a quirky white girl to Ally McBeal the place. Orange is pretty passe for me, though: I spent 18 months in a minimum-security prison after I was caught helping my boyfriend sell drugs. This is what life is really like on the inside.

Sex Between Inmates Is Incredibly Common, Incredibly Unsexy

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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If you expected me to tell you that the media exaggerates the amount of sex going on between female inmates, I'm dreadfully sorry to disappoint you (or make your day, depending). It wasn't my thing personally, but I saw plenty of it. Although it's practically ubiquitous, it's not exactly the steamy romps in the showers you see on TV or more, ahem, low-budget productions.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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Despite the title, 69 to Life isn't a realistic prison sentence.

First you case the joint for a private place (usually a broom closet or a bathroom -- they're not like public restrooms with stalls; we get to poop in peace in minimum security), recruit a lookout, then memorize the guards' routines to the point that you could do the job yourself if only they could see past that pesky "technically imprisoned here" thing. The girls learn to "prime themselves," so to speak, just prior to the intricately planned encounter, because you've got about five minutes, tops, to get the job done. There's little romance involved, no chance of getting fully naked, and you certainly never do it out in the open, so any idle fantasies of slow, sensuous shower orgies are relegated to Cinemax at 2 a.m. Besides, we have private showers, anyway. All this secrecy is necessary because getting caught might mean a trip to maximum security.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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A fate generally regarded as "not worth it" for 5 minutes of cramped sex in a bathroom stall.

All this, despite the fact that even the guards know how commonplace inmate sex is. In fact, the incoming prisoners are subjected to the most uncomfortable kind of entrance exam: a battery of STD tests. At the facility where I served, if you failed you got housed separately from the uninfected women, in the "don't bone me" block. Otherwise, it would only be a matter of time before the whole unit came down with the crotch pox. It should be noted that this strategy was found to be seriously ineffective, but prisoners by and large are still not given access to condoms or other safe sex supplies, for fear that it will condone sexual activity. And it's not like anybody in a prison would be down for breaking some rules ...

You Better Get Friendly With the Guards, but Not Too Friendly

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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Officially, guards are not supposed to fraternize with the inmates -- not so much as a "did you see Game of Thrones last night?" may pass between us, which is good, because Game of Thrones spoilers will get you shivved. Or at least they should. But you do develop relationships with guards you like, and you depend on them to help you out if you need something. A guard's opinion of you can either mean a few extra privileges, or getting sent to max for a minor infraction. You better hope you can get in good with them.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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So if you can figure out a way to bake friendship brownies in your cell, maybe move that above toilet wine on the priority list.

Not too good, though. Romantic relationships are shockingly common and carry dire consequences, which I witnessed firsthand when a fellow inmate went all Romeo and Juliet with a male guard. They passed letters to each other. It was all very sweet, like a couple of kids in Ms. Davis' 8th-grade history class. Also like Ms. Davis' 8th-grade history class, it was a massively fucked example of how to abuse your power. Their letters were found during a shakedown. He was fired, and she was sent to maximum. It's not uncommon for the women to be the aggressors, though. My roommate became psychotically obsessed with her work supervisor, and when she didn't let up after being repeatedly informed that he just wasn't ready to commit to a long-term sentence right now, she was transferred to a different area of work and ordered to cease all contact with him. She got off lucky, because that would normally be a transfer to max.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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"I think we should see other people. For you, those people will be wearing manacles."

God forbid you have to friend-zone a guard. That same roommate also became the object of unwanted affection from a female guard, who wasn't too keen on the "I think of you like a sister, with a Taser" line. The roommate told her caseworker what was going on. The caseworker said she would look into it, but never did. She got off lucky: you don't accuse a guard of anything if you can't prove it, because it will come down harder on you than it does on the guard. They protect their own. So it just went on, with my roommate being given extra duty and the guard constantly ordering our room shaken down, hoping to find a contraband tampon or something.

Oh, right ...

Feminine Products Are Tightly Controlled for Occasionally Baffling Reasons

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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Anyone who's fought for bathroom shelf space with a woman can tell you that ladies have a unique set of needs when it comes to personal hygiene. When you're in jail, though, these things are tightly regulated, for obvious reasons. Every time you want to shave your legs, you ask a guard, who takes you to a padlocked supply room and solemnly bequeaths you the precious Lady Bic, which you have to sign out. Now, the clock is ticking -- you've got half an hour to use that razor before you have to turn it in for them to throw away. Otherwise, the alarm bells start ringing, because maybe you went off to go slit your wrists or somebody else's. So you rush to the shower, I Dream of Jeannie out of your clothes, shave as fast as you can, leap back into them, and race to turn the razor in. Maybe the thinking is that, if you can manage all that and kill somebody with a safety razor in under half an hour, you deserve to get away with it.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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That's why smart prison murders save time by only cutting one-fourth of the neck at a time, over a period of weeks.

It gets a little ridiculous when it comes to less dangerous items, though. You get a set amount of tampons and pads every month, which you have to specifically request and sign for. Imagine the awkward conversation you have with the guard if it turns out you've got a particularly heavy flow that month. Plus, what kind of havoc can you wreak with a tampon? If you figure out something worse than 'huck it at somebody,' you're an evil genius and that prison will not hold you for long.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV

Smuggling Contraband Into Prison Is Absurdly Easy

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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If you ever get tired of government-issue front plugs, there's nothing stopping anyone from smuggling you in some Tampax. And it is nowhere near as sophisticated an operation as they show in movies and TV. There's no contraband being smuggled inside the food shipments, or sailed in through the sewers. Prisoners who had the connections just had people walk up and throw things over the fence. Whatever could be smuggled was simply lobbed on over -- drugs, CD players, cell phones, you name it.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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"Hey, Janice, I brought your favorite javelin!"

Smuggling things in with your fun parts was also a very popular method. They don't do full cavity searches, so as long as you've been doing your kegel exercises, you can get an iPod shuffle past the guards, no problem. I knew a woman who smuggled in meth inside her vagina, and another woman who smuggled in goddamn jewelry. We were standing outside talking one day when I noticed she was wearing a tongue ring, which isn't allowed. "Oh, I forgot to take it out," the woman said, before explaining how she got it in ...

Racial Tensions Run High (School)

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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There are definitely tensions between inmates of different races, but at least in the minimum security women's prison I ... "attended," it's not exactly all-out race riots. It's far more subtle than that. People do tend to stick to their own group, but we're all more or less thrown in there together, paving the way for all kinds of interesting conflict. As a white girl, I'm not going to pretend I've got it the worst, but there is definitely a lot of resentment toward the white girls from the black and Latina inmates. Usually, we have shorter sentences for a number of (sometimes fucked up) reasons, and a lot of us had black boyfriends on the outside, which wasn't always looked kindly upon. That leads to all kinds of ridiculous little passive-aggressive slights. I worked in the kitchen, which was predominantly staffed by black inmates, so that's where I felt it the most. Since the girls basically run the place, we decide who gets to do what, and I was consistently given the most mind-numbing and menial grunt work. I was even given less food, so on the plus side, I was all set to hit the beach by the time I got out.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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Tired of Atkins? Try Attica.

People of different races also buddy up to each other for the privileges enjoyed by each group. A white girl may buddy up to a black girl because the black guards tend to favor them, or a black girl may buddy up to a white girl for access to her commissary, because she's more likely to know people in the outside who have money. It's basically Mean Girls, right down to the coordinated outfits.

You Are Largely Responsible for Your Own Medical Care

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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You get a gyno exam once a year, and if you have any issues in between, well, you should've thought of that before prison, dummy. If you think you might have a yeast infection, for example, you're not seeing a doctor to confirm it. You're going to their tiny clinic and trying to talk a nurse into giving you some cream, sight unseen. You better hope you've got a pretty good working knowledge of your body in general, because it's up to you to determine what's wrong with you and what you need. I suspect this is why prisons have libraries, to facilitate a bunch of ladies with unusual swelling re-enacting a seriously low-budget episode of House.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
Presumably one from that season where Wilson kept stabbing people with a sharpened spoon.

That's a big reason why inmates are at a much higher risk for a number of health problems like cervical cancer. And if you're pregnant, God help you. You get monthly doctor visits (they should be much more frequent as you get further along) and limited access to necessary ultrasounds. I knew a fellow inmate who was pregnant, and what I saw wasn't pretty. When she started complaining of unusual pain and other issues, they basically blew her off. Eventually, she started bleeding, so they finally took her to a hospital, where she gave birth prematurely with complications. That's about the size of things, and it's a harrowing prospect for the about 6 percent of inmates who bring their fetuses along for the stay. But hey, it could be worse - in 33 states, you could be forced to give birth in shackles.

6 Ways Women's Prison Is More Horrifying Than It Looks on TV
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Apparently they're worried this woman might get up and start sprinting.

I'm not going to sit here and act like I didn't do anything wrong, but I'm pretty sure I don't deserve to bleed to death on a gurney. It's hard to change to the prison systems in a society where more than two-thirds of people think convicts shouldn't even have the right to vote, but the maddeningly slow crawl toward progress continues. If the general public has to get their empathetic insight from Netflix original comedies, well, there are worse fates. It could've been on CBS.

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things You Didn't Know Surgeons Do With Your Body and 5 Things I Learned as a Neo-Nazi.

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Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.

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