The XX Factor

Female Inmates From Danbury Prison Still in Limbo, Lacking Key Services

A year ago, I wrote about a victory for more than 1,000 female inmates at the women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut, featured in the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. Like the character Piper in the show’s second season, the women were slated for transfer—to a newly constructed prison, far away, in Aliceville, Alabama. The proposed move would have sent many of the women hundreds of miles from their families in cities in the Northeast. Their beds at Danbury were to be filled with men.

The prisoners’ plight attracted the attention of the real Piper Kerman, who wrote the book the show is based on, and of 11 senators from the Northeast. The federal Bureau of Prisons temporarily suspended the transfers last August and announced that, along with creating a facility at Danbury for men, it would create enough minimum-security beds for women to keep female inmates who were U.S. citizens in the Northeast.

But ten months later, “no ground has been broken at Danbury for new construction, and the BOP has declined to provide a detailed timeline for the completion of the new facility,” according to a new report by the Arthur Liman Program at Yale Law School (where I teach). All but 200 of Danbury’s female inmates have been transferred to other facilities, including jails in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. The jails aren’t far from the families of many of the women, and that’s a significant boon. But the jails aren’t designed for long-term stays. They lack key services, like residential drug treatment, apprenticeships, and decent jobs. The women don’t know how long they’ll stay at these jails, but the BOP now says construction at Danbury could take 30 months.

The 11 Northeast senators released another letter to the BOP on Wednesday, calling the lack of progress on the renovations at Danbury “unjustifiable.” Most of the female inmates who are now being shunted around committed nonviolent crimes. Orange Is the New Black makes its viewers care about a slew of amazingly interesting incarcerated characters. But it’s their real counterparts who need help.