Film Explores Issues Faced by Female Prisoners

By Sarah Beller 04/02/13

The subjects of the documentary were victims before they became offenders, the director tells The Fix.

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The Iowa Correctional Institution for Women
Photo via

The Grey Area, a documentary about women in prison, illustrates the complex factors that land many women behind bars. The film's director, writer and producer, 28-year-old Noga Ashkenazi, tells The Fix that the lines between guilt and innocence were less black-and-white than she anticipated. "During my experience working with the female inmate population, I learned that the vast majority of incarcerated women were victims before they became offenders," she tells us. "My film explores the impact of having a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse on these women's lives, and how directly that history of abuse has led them to coming to prison." Ashkenazi was inspired to make the film as an undergrad at Grinnell College, when she volunteered to teach a class on feminism to Iowa inmates. "Not many people get the opportunity to enter a prison and interact with the people who are incarcerated in it," she tells us, "and that's why I wanted to share these women's stories with the public, in hope that it will inspire people to get involved and to want to learn more."

Most of the women featured in the film were locked up on drug charges, and many had initially turned to drugs as a way of coping with a history of abuse, Ashkenazi explains. "Incarceration due to substance abuse related crimes has increased dramatically in recent years," she says, "In Iowa, for example, twenty years ago only two percent of the state's prison population was serving time for a drug offense, and now it's over 25%. Women, in particular, are significantly more affected by these drug offender trends and today about 31% of women in prison in Iowa are there on a drug crime." As a result, she says, "women in prison represent one of the most needy populations in terms of their mental health needs, PTSD, recovery from trauma...yet those needs are rarely met by the prison system, often due to lack of funding and insufficient treatment staff." In the Mitchellville prison at the time the film was made, there were only 2 psychologists in charge of a population of nearly 700 women. Ashkenazi says this is "a real problem and I believe more resources should be allocated to addressing inmates' mental-health needs and facilitating their recovery process." The Grey Area is being distributed by Women Make Movies and has recently been released on DVD for home use as well as for educational institutions and non-profits. More information can be found on the film's official website.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.