By Jessica Lee, Bertha Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights
In this second season of Orange Is the New Black, "do you want to go to SHU?" is on the lips of every guard, and in the mind of every woman in Litchfield Penitentiary. The threat works because the SHU gives prison officials ultimate power -- power to strip away your ability to communicate, to know night from day... to be sane. In SHU, or the Security Housing Unit, prisoners are held in solitary cells, often without communication or even a window for 22 to 24 hours a day. Right now, there are at least 80,000 people in the United States facing that horrifying existence, including people with mental and physical disabilities, pregnant women, the elderly, and children as young as 13. Some have endured this isolation for more than a decade; others like Albert Woodfox in Louisiana, have spent more than 40 years in solitary.
In OITNB, being placed in solitary confinement drove Piper to deliriously paint on her cell wall with food and brought Watson to the edge of her sanity. These reactions aren't over dramatization on the show's part. Survivors have described living in solitary as a constant struggle to maintain their humanity. People kept in isolation experience heightened states of anxiety, hallucinations, confused thought processes, oversensitivity to noise, smells, and touch, and suicidal thoughts. The scars of this torture, such as impaired memory, chronic depression, and personality changes, might be invisible, but they can be life shattering, with many people almost unable to function in normal environments once they get out. Others don't leave their cells alive -- in February former Marine Jerome Murdough baked to death in a Rikers solitary cell while awaiting trial for trespassing. Just last month a Texas woman filed a lawsuit after being left to give birth in her solitary cell. The baby died.
When Yoga Jones saw her friend Watson suffering from solitary confinement and called the SHU "torture," she was in good company. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, found that when solitary confinement is used for punishment, lasts for over 15 days, is used indefinitely or on the mentally disabled or children, it can amount to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or torture. But all those things happen here and with shockingly little regulation. Prison officials try to justify their use of solitary as a tool of last resort to isolate high-security-risk prisoners, but the truth is closer to the arbitrary or even malicious use we glimpsed in fictional Litchfield. In reality, people are thrown in the SHU for years for nonviolent offences like possessing contraband, "talking back," or to coerce them into informing on other prisoners. Because of how well it silences dissent, jailhouse lawyers, jailhouse doctors and other activists are regularly sent to the SHU. And the use of solitary is plagued by the same discrimination as the rest of our justice system, with the majority of those isolated being Black and Latino. Despite its harmful effects, solitary is also used to avoid having to spend resources to protect the vulnerable; as CeCe McDonald recently described, trans people (along with other LGBTI people and the mentally ill) are often placed in solitary "for their own protection."
Efforts to end, reduce, or at least regulate solitary are growing. Federal legislation like the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act would establish a study of solitary and require the Attorney General to create federal guidelines on its use. In New York, legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement has the support of a broad coalition, including over 20 legislative co-sponsors, religious, mental health, and justice organizations. And real life organizing behind bars puts Sister Ingalls and Soso's protest to shame; in California, prisoners have organized to protest long-term solitary confinement and other inhuman conditions, last year launching a hunger strike 30,000 strong which went on for 60 days until the California legislature agreed to hold hearings on solitary. Now, thousands of California prisoners are challenging the conditions with a class action lawsuit, represented by my colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
OITNB has done something remarkable by highlighting this practice, but my biggest fear is that viewers will start to see it as normal, like just another part of the drama happening to fictional characters. So the next episode of OITNB that you watch, replace the word "SHU" with torture. That's what it is. Remember that in real life 1 out of 100 American adults are in prison are facing that threat every day, and that some have endured solitary confinement for decades on end. Know there are thousands of Pipers and Watsons in SHUs out there, and they won't all end up okay. They won't be let out at the end of the episode or the season, or even the series. The torture will only end when our courts and legislatures treat solitary confinement like the crime it is.