Sheriff's department cars are parked near the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead, N.Y.
Photo by Ed Betz/AP

NYCLU sues over ‘Orange is the New Black’ prison

Updated

This piece contains mild spoilers for the second season of “Orange is the New Black.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union wants you to know that incarceration isn’t quite as gross as depicted on the new season of the Netflix Original Series “Orange is the New Black.”

It’s way more disgusting. 

“In real life, the inmates in the Suffolk County Jail, they’re not treated like human beings,” said Corey Stoughton, an attorney with the NYCLU. “They’re treated like animals.”

Since 2012, the NYCLU and Shearman & Sterling have been representing inmates at New York’s Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead – the very facility where parts of Netflix’s hit show have been filmed. In an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the inmates in their lawsuit, the NYCLU is engaged in a new social media campaign called “Humanity is the New Black,” hoping fans of the show will tie the issues in the show to the ones incarcerated people face in real life. The non-profit Prison Policy Initative estimates that there are about 2.4 million incarcerated people in the U.S., with about 720,000 in local jails.

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“What I love about the show is how good it was at drawing the characters as fully-fledged human beings, and should not be reduced to some of their crimes,” said Stoughton, who says she hasn’t seen the new season but plans to binge watch it while on maternity leave. ”It seems like our suspicion that the fans of the show would understand these issues was right, people are making the connection.” 

Stoughton says the lawsuit was filed after inmates themselves had made more than a hundred complaints to courts about conditions at the facilities. According to NYCLU complaint, inmates at Riverhead and at the county’s Yaphank facility have to contend with black mold in the showers, undrinkable water, sewage overflowing into their cells, and “ping pong toilets.”

What’s a ping pong toilet?

“When you flush a toilet it bubbles up into your neighbors toilet,” said Stoughton, who adds that the inmates have devised a system for warning each other when they’re flushing, so that their neighbors don’t end up with a very unpleasant surprise.

“When you flush a toilet it bubbles up into your neighbors toilet.”
Corey Stoughton, an attorney with the NYCLU

The two facilities are jails – so, unlike prisons, many of the people held at the facilities have not been convicted of crimes. Some of them may be awaiting trial or simply can’t afford the necessary bail. 

“You have people who will go to maximum security facilities, but you also have people who have been arrested for minor crimes, the folks in that jail will run the whole gamut in terms of the charges they’re facing,” said Stoughton. 

In a video produced by the group, Jason Porter, a 33-year-old former inmate, talks about his experience at the facility:

“We were basically just sitting around, and the toilets in every cell on the tier just exploded,” Porter says in the video. “It just began to mount to about seven inches high and float, out of the tier into the bay area. Feces, urine, a brownish green liquid, just about seven inches from the ground.”

Piper Kerman, the author whose memoir about a year spent in prison is the source material for the series, told The New Yorker that she thought the NYCLU’s “Humanity Is The New Black” campaign was “great.” Plumbing problems play a role on the new season of the show, sparking a rivalry between two different factions of women inmates after the showers overflow with feces. Unknown to the inmates, the plumbing is not being fixed because of corruption in the fictional Litchfield Prison’s administrative leadership. 

The NYCLU, however, is still in the dark about why the facilities are so poorly managed in Suffolk County. Although a judge certified the lawsuit as a class action and denied the County’s request to dismiss the suit, Stoughton says that the county has been “fighting tooth and nail” to hold back information the attorneys are seeking as part of the discovery process. 

“This is not how we treat human beings,” said Stoughton. “Any fan of the show will understand that there needs to be a little more of an element of humanity in how we treat people who are incarcerated.”

Prison and Prison Reform

NYCLU sues over 'Orange is the New Black' prison

Updated