While millions of people are tuning into the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” for a fictionalized view of what life is like for women in prison, a better portrait can be found in Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility (University of California Press, 2014), a new book brimming with real-life accounts of women who have been in and out of prison by Suffolk University professors and sociologists Susan Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk.
Over five years, Sered and Norton-Hawk followed a group of 40 previously incarcerated women. “Many were convicted at birth,” says Norton-Hawk. “In other words, they were born into a neighborhood, family, or culture that presented hurdles from the start.”
“It’s really a book about suffering,” says Sered, who notes that 85 percent of women in prison are victims of previous sexual or physical abuse. “The overwhelming majority of incarcerated women are locked up on minor, non-violent charges. They live in poverty and they are abused, which leads to physical and mental health problems, which leads to job loss and homelessness, which makes them vulnerable to incarceration.”
While many of the women are addicted to drugs and alcohol, the authors argue this is a symptom, not a cause of the downward spiral. “Nearly all of the women describe their alcohol or drug use as self-medicating,” notes Sered. “As a society, we say that treatment will cure the problem, but the problem isn't drug abuse. We need to address the conditions that cause their suffering to begin with.”
Though the stories are poignant — and painful — there are rays of hope. “For example after two years of struggle, one women gained custody of her teenage son,” says Norton-Hawk. “Another woman was able to get a job through a friend.”
Perhaps the book’s biggest lesson is that no one is immune from the cycles of suffering that drew these women into prison and onto the streets. “These women are not outliers,” says Sered. “They represent growing numbers of American who struggle each day to get by.”
The authors advocate that new economic and political policies are needed to combat this crisis. “We’re creating suffering through the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, housing prices that prevent too many Americans from being able to own a home, mass incarceration of people of color, and the absence of a social commitment to eliminating violence against women,” says Sered.