Skip to main content

by Ruth Margalit


Photograph of the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead, New York, by Getty.

“I’ve always loved getting clean,” says Piper Chapman, at the beginning of the first episode of “Orange Is the New Black.” We see a montage of Chapman, a blond, WASPy wild child, taking a bath as a little girl, then as an adult showering with her lesbian lover and, later, soaking in a tub with her boyfriend. “I love baths. I love showers. It’s my happy place.” Then the camera cuts to her in prison, in Litchfield, New York, wearing improvised flip-flops beneath a measly drizzle of water. “Was my happy place,” she corrects herself.

Two episodes later, Piper is standing in line for the bathroom. “It’s all yours,” Sophia Burset, the prison’s transgender hairstylist, tells her. Piper really has to go, but there’s a hitch: the stall has no door. “That’s O.K. I think I’ll wait,” she says. Sophia sizes her up: “Give it a week. You’ll be pissing and farting with the rest of us.”

Harsh, right? But what if, instead of a lukewarm trickle, the water coming out of that shower were brown and smelled funky? What if the problem in the bathroom weren’t the lack of privacy but rather that, every time someone flushed, her waste would surface in the neighboring stall? Those are some of the more than ninety complaints filed by inmates at the Riverhead correctional facility in Suffolk County, New York, where “Orange Is the New Black” has filmed scenes for its second season.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, seizing on the show’s use of the Riverhead facility, launched a campaign called Humanity Is the New Black (or, sorry, #HumanityIstheNewBlack) to protest conditions at Riverhead and at Yaphank, another Suffolk County jail. “I think the NYCLU campaign is great,” Piper Kerman, whose memoir is the basis for the series, told me by e-mail. “Now that the second season has been launched, O.I.T.N.B. superfans know that there is a second season storyline about plumbing, disgustingly unsanitary conditions, and correctional corruption at Litchfield. So art does imitate life (and vice versa).”

The Humanity Is the New Black campaign is the latest push by prison-reform advocates, joining a lawsuit filed by the N.Y.C.L.U. and the law firm Shearman & Sterling on behalf of Suffolk County inmates that has been stalled for more than two years. People housed in the Riverhead facility, according to the lawsuit, are forced to live with overflowing sewage and amid black mold, rust, and rodent infestations. “This is really unhealthy from top to bottom,” Corey Stoughton, an N.Y.C.L.U. staff attorney and a counsel on the case, told me. “You add up the daily task of living in that environment, and it’s just beyond what any human being should have to bear.”

As I reviewed about a dozen of the inmates’ handwritten grievances, provided to me by the N.Y.C.L.U., a pattern quickly emerged: the water is undrinkable, the inmates write; the stench rising up from the sewers is revolting; they feel sick. Many refer to what they call the “Ping-Pong bathrooms”—a term that is explained in a complaint filed in 2011 by a fifty-year-old man: “The next cell backs up into mine, when I wake up throughout the night there’s feces and urine in my toilet.” He adds, “I’ve complained to officers number of times.” Another inmate writes, “I am constantly being exposed to other inmates human bodily waste I am in cell #9.” A third inmate states, “I have been drinking the water here and came to realize it’s the problems I having with throat, stomach and lung.” Another complains of “rashes and hard skin on my back and feet from the water in the shower.” His complaint ends with a request: “I wish to seek help from medical please as soon as possible.”

Michael Sharkey, the chief of staff in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, told me in response that, while he couldn’t address specific complaints because of the pending lawsuit, “All jails in New York State are monitored by the New York State Commission of Correction. You have to meet their standards, and we consistently meet their standards.”

The problem, as criminal-justice reform activists view it, is not only one of substandard conditions but of scope. Almost seven million people are incarcerated at adult correctional systems across the country, according to a Department of Justice report released last year. About one in every thirty-five adult Americans has been under some form of correctional supervision, with black males more than six times as likely as white males to be incarcerated. (In Suffolk County, black people represent seven per cent of the general population but forty per cent of the inmates.) Seventeen hundred inmates, on average, are housed at the Suffolk County correctional facilities—a short drive that may as well be light-years away from the nearby Hamptons. The facilities serve as jails, not prisons, which means that they are locally financed and locally operated. They are also supposed to be temporary. And yet expanded jail construction in the state of New York had cost taxpayers an estimated billion dollars by 2008. A study by the Center for Constitutional Rights states, “In many counties, these projects have been the largest financed capital project in the history of the county.”

Adam Gopnik, in an article about U.S. prisons published in the magazine in 2012, writes that, for the poor in America, and particularly for poor black men, prison is as much a fact of life as college is for rich white people. “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850,” he writes. “The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people.”

It’s these effects—on real people, not merely as a Hollywood backdrop—that the N.Y.C.L.U. is focussing on. Talking about the Riverhead inmates, Stoughton asked me, “Why are they there? By and large, they’re there because they couldn’t make bail, because they’re poor. And if they had five hundred dollars or fifteen hundred dollars to post bond, they wouldn’t have to be there.” In a video testimonial, Jason Porter, a thirty-three-year-old former inmate, describes enduring thirty hours during which sewage floated freely on the jail’s floors and “all over the walls, the cells, the ceilings.” He summed up by saying that, at Riverhead, “It’s almost inevitable: you’re going to get something.”

“You would think that that would be on the TV show, not in real life,” Stoughton replied when asked about Porter’s account. She told me that she had binge-watched the first season of “Orange Is the New Black,” and she praised the show’s creators for the nuanced ways in which they portray the characters. “They get that people in jails are human beings that deserve to be treated like human beings,” she said. The frustration that she and the inmates had with the show was not that it was filmed at the Riverhead facility but with what they consider the misguided policies of the Suffolk County authorities. “You have this county that’s on the one hand making money off of, and wooing, Hollywood, and then you have this reality—and the reality puts fiction to shame.”



IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.