Thursday, July 17, 2014

Orange HAS BEEN the New Black for Women of Color

11 years and 1 month ago today, I was released from spending nearly 3 years in prison. Though I have forgotten much of my experience-some of it remains emblazoned on my mind. Going to prison for many of us-even with education and success (I was and still am a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Wisconsin), is all too common place. In fact none of this is new for women of color-or men for that matter. Incarceration for many communities is "just how it is".

Even so, I do remember a few things from prison, many of those experiences are seen and included in the book turned Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Many, many truisms (and all of those characters) are omnipresent, as seen here:   

In binge watching the second season, two charcters have emerged as favorites: Sophia Burset (portrayed by Laverne Cox) who was nominated for an Emmy, as well as the first transgendered role recognized by these awards; and "Crazy Eyes" played by Uza Aduba shown as the resident mentally ill inmate. I was very pleased to see many of the disparities of  incarcerated women. For example, some women feel a need to belong to a group as does "Crazy Eyes", while other do not, as in Ms. Burset.  The theme of this second season is commerce, or how women (and men) survive in episodes like "Appropriately Sized Pots".  Everything can be bought in prison-for a price. What really happens when the supply chain is cut, or competition is introduced? It's the stuff of MBA programs.

 Jenji Kohan  the  show's creator, writer, producer and director, thankfully gave the viewer the back story of each of show's characters-how did these women end up in prison? Included in every episode the issue of their undiagnosed mental illness: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia, addictions and abuse of all kinds, most of which read like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-Fifth Edition. These issues produced some of my favorite lines from  "patient" Crazy Eyes: "I do not remember taking Lady Loxley (ode to Downton Abbey) out there" , or "I'm not crazy, I'm unique", and best of all "My therapist says yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery". "Crazy Eyes", is mentally ill undoubtedly-as she notes "She is a truth teller, she told me that". Undiagnosed mental illness is rampant not only in our nations prisons, but on our streets as well.The deinstitutionalization of our community health system 30 years ago is to blame-instead of here-they are overflowing out of our jails and prisons. Most penal facilities are ill equipped to handle this population, and consequently there has been a call to provide more services, but most of the funding goes to men. There are more of them and their supporters scream louder. I'd like to see access to health care in general improve for everyone, including incarcerated women, and decrease the imprisonment and recidivism rates across the board. This is now a reality, as greater access to care with the advent of the Affordable Care Act-many states (unfortunately-not Wisconsin) has become actively involved with enrolling ex-offenders in health care programs once they are released-so they receive the treatment they desperately need.

Since being released from prison, I have noticed more programs for re-entry and reunification such as in Bedford Hills. (Where Orange takes place).
Bedford Hills has been the focus on cutting edge programs-I saw the movie "Prison Lullabies" years ago  at a film festival, but that's just one prison."Over-incareration" affects us all, and we all ultimately pay the price. As Wisconsin has the highest rate for African-American men-as James Causey editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted  
It's our problem, not a "black" problem.  Education, jobs training, treatment assist the ex-offender (male or female) to become a contributing citizens. before they are released. 

The star of Orange Piper Kerman (played by Taylor Schilling) has too taken up activism 

and while it's a good thing-it's not a new thing for women of color to be incarcerated, and I don't see many women of color speaking out on the issue-even after 14 years-it's about time.

I can confidently say I would not be the Clinical and Executive Director of my company TransformationServices, Inc (TSI), had I not gone to prison.  The mission and vision of (TSI) is to provide Substance Abuse Training. The program focuses on the unemployed, underemployed, employees, and business owners. One of our company goals is to offer mental health and substance abuse care to everyone with a focus on minority communities and in doing so increase the number of minority providers in this subspeciality. The issue affects these communities disproportionately. TSI also offers AODA training for the Prevention Specialist/in Training, as well as the advanced licenses Clinical/Substance Abuse Counselors, Intermediate Clinical Supervisor, Independent Clinical Supervisor, as well as sub-specialty substance abuse education and supervision for the Mental Health- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). We hire our students, and/or provide on-site job referrals. TSI functions as a consortium; our therapists have a wide range of expertise and backgrounds. Our facility GreenCircle offers a growing environment that also supports a Social Entrepreneurship Incubator for Professionals and Professionals to Be. We feel very strongly that the peer to peer approach works-and we are active in re-entry efforts for ex-offenders, especially women.

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