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Fallen Women

For incarcerated women, there is little justice to be found

December 3, 2008, 12:00 am

From reality TV to cable dramas, imprisoned women make good watching, apparently.

Cable shows like MSNBC’s Lock-Up, as well as network shows like Jails and COPS (both with “Bad Girls” editions) regularly depict these kinds of methods of regressive, abusive tactics on clearly mentally ill persons.

Chain GangThat’s where “reality” television goes these days, and these shows aren’t just popular, they’re considered an entertaining way to watch criminals get their due. When it comes to women doing time, there are several shows featuring “greedy,” “immoral” women who have killed (Snapped, True Hollywood Story, as well as the slightly less sensational Women Behind Bars on WeTV). Television seems to love the idea of a female killer—at a distance that is—although women who kill represent a small and unique population within female prisons. Even more television shows about women in prison are already on the air or forthcoming: Of them, only Mexico’s Capadocia (already available in the US on HBO Latino) and the forthcoming Bad Girls (the American version of a long-running BBC drama series) promise a bit more than familiar stereotypes. (Capadocia actually takes on privatization of prisons and abuse in prison as major themes.)

But for that bit of progress, we may soon have Cherry Hill (a spin-off of Prison Break), as well as Robert Rodriguez’ Women in Chains, which promises “hot” female-on-female action in prison, including predatory lesbian wardens and mud-wrestling behind bars.

Just as cinematic and televised portrayals have tended to sensationalize and sexualize the plight of women behind bars, so, too, have the fields of journalism and criminology traditionally ignored or simplified the complexity of women’s experiences behind bars. It’s time for criminologists and journalists alike to help the public understand the extent to which antiquated notions about what it means to be a “proper” woman inform the way we treat a person who deviates from the norm or commits a crime. In particular, I refer to women who engage in sex work and women who sell or use drugs.

Susan Boyd, author of From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law, and Policy, points out that women have alternately been respected, tolerated or castigated for their drug use throughout history. Attitudes have varied wildly from one generation to the next, and have always been skewed by a woman’s ethnic and class status. Of particular significance, Boyd notes, is the 18th and 19th centuries’ upper- and middle-class women’s use of opiates, cocaine or marijuana in medicinal tinctures, which was viewed as a matter of sophistication and high social standing. But all that began to change with the temperance movement of the late 1800s: “Contrary to early Christian views that women were inherently evil, the new temperance movement depicted women as naturally moral,” Boyd writes. “However, some women were constructed as more moral than others. Poor women and women of color, immigrants, and ‘fallen women’ were viewed as immoral and deviant.”

In essence, some women were considered “redeemable,” while others were dismissed as hopeless. Since that time, the religiously based concept of “fallen women” has marred the American psyche, informing current attitudes, laws, prison programs and media portrayals of women who use illicit drugs. While drug- and alcohol-using boys and men have a certain amount of latitude to indulge their pleasure-seeking proclivities, women who are similarly inclined are more commonly viewed with disdain and disgust, which they, themselves, often internalize.

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