What Orange is the New Black Doesn’t Teach You about SHU

By: Emily Morazán, NCWO intern

Villains aren’t always easy to identify in the Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black. Even antagonists like George “Pornstache” Mendez, Natalie “Fig” Figueroa, and Yvonne “Vee” Parker elicit viewers’ sympathy from time to time. So, who – or what – is the constant villain at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary? That would be the security housing unit, or SHU. SHU is just one of many phrases that means solitary confinement; others include disciplinary segregation, supermaxes, the hole, or the box. As it turns out, SHU isn’t all that different from its villainous television depiction. In fact, it’s worse.

Much like in OITNB, SHU is used as punitive measure in real-life prisons. Generally, there are two types of solitary confinement: Disciplinary segregation and administrative segregation. Disciplinary segregation is self-explanatory: break the rules and land in SHU. Administrative segregation, on the other hand, is more complicated and not affected by an inmate’s behavior. For the most part, this measure separates prisoners who are a danger to themselves or to others, like a gang member. However, another form of segregation called protective custody takes inmates who are in danger of other prisoners and ”protects them” by segregating them. If OITNB were to reflect this aspect of solitary, we might see Sofia Burset placed in solitary because she is trans*. Because trans men and women in prison are in danger of other prisoners, they are frequently placed in “protective custody”. This solution serves as a punishment for trans* prisoners and is not an effective solution.

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) testified before Congress regarding increased use of solitary confinement with a particular focus on its use as a protective measure for Gays, Lesbians, Intersex, and Transgender individuals in prison. These groups are among the most likely to be placed in solitary as a “protective measure” along with other vulnerable groups, such as mentally ill prisoners. Information about the number of prisoners in solitary is almost impossible to pinpoint, as the definition varies from state to state and even prison to prison. Psychologically, SHU has negative effects ranging from anxiety, post-traumatic stress, paranoia, and hallucinations to many other problems. The terror on Piper Chapman and Janae Watson’s faces when they are carted off to SHU in the first season of OITNB is just a glimpse  of the terror that extended periods in solitary can excite.

Today, organizations like Solitary Watch, the ACLU, the Correctional Association of New York, and even the American Psychological Association are working to decrease the use of solitary. While OITNB creates its own villainous characters, it also steps back and presents the harsh realities of a deeply-flawed criminal justice system as character of its own. The correctional officers, violent prisoners like Vee, Sam Healy (the prison counselor), Figueroa, and Galina “Red” Reznikov are all situated within a broken system. Although these characters face their own personal villains, SHU is one way that viewers can see the broken system as a universal antagonist.

We encourage you to learn more about solitary confinement and get involved by donating your time, becoming more familiar with the issue, and consider joining an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights.


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