Fact Check: What it’s Really Like at the ‘Orange is the New Black’ Jail

June 5, 2014 —  In conjunction with the release of Orange is the New Black, the New York Civil Liberties Union today launched a Humanity is the New Black campaign highlighting the inhumane conditions at the Long Island jail featured in the popular Netflix show’s second season

Riverhead Correctional Facility is notorious for its appalling conditions. People – the majority of whom have not been convicted of any crime – are forced to live amidst overflowing sewage, chronic overcrowding, rodent and insect infestations, pervasive mold and rust, and other deplorable conditions. The NYCLU and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP in 2012 filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging these abuses and demanding that Suffolk County clean up both Riverhead and Yaphank Correctional Facility.

But more than two years later, the county has refused to make even basic fixes to jail infrastructure and is actively stalling discovery in the lawsuit, slowing the legal process down and allowing more people to suffer.

“Suffolk County should take the energy it put into wooing Hollywood into cleaning up the shocking conditions in its jails,” said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the NYCLU. “Raw sewage bubbles from the floor, toilets explode, rodents and roaches infest the kitchens, black mold covers the walls, and drinking and bathing water runs brown and smells of sewage. The women in Orange is the New Black face miserable conditions and abuse, but nothing in the show compares to what real people are experiencing in the jail where they film.”

The lawsuit argues that the county’s longstanding indifference to the deplorable and well-documented conditions at the jails violates people’s constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

To highlight the urgency to reform the jail, the NYCLU today launched a public education campaign urging people to contact Suffolk County and tell officials there to stop stalling and clean up the jails.

  • New Yorkers from across the state are joining the social media frenzy surrounding the Orange Is the New Black premiere by posting photos in orange to demand Suffolk County fixes its shocking treatment of prisoners. Photos and facts are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at #HumanityistheNewBlack.
  • People formerly incarcerated at Suffolk County jails are sharing in detail the inhumane conditions that they were subjected to in Suffolk County.
  • Fans of Orange is the New Black and others committed to basic human rights are flooding Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone with emails demanding change through an online NYCLU action page.

“We are huge fans of Orange is the New Black and we’re thrilled the show is able to provide a glimpse into the lives of incarcerated people and the experiences they deal with,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “But a big part of our story is what won’t be shown on TV.”

Paul Alver, a Suffolk County resident who first went to Riverhead and Yaphank when he was only 16-years-old, said, “Many people refused to eat or drink the water after becoming violently sick with headaches and stomachaches. At Yaphank, while I worked in the kitchen, I saw boxes of chicken that were labeled ‘not for human consumption.’”

Jason Porter, a county resident, spent two months at Riverhead and encountered shockingly unsanitary conditions, including showers caked with mold, very cold temperatures and chronically malfunctioning toilets.

“One night, the toilets in just about every cell exploded,” Porter said. “The place was flooded with raw sewage. We retreated to the table area, where we sought refuge for 30 hours. I couldn’t explain the smell in a million years. Nobody should ever be forced to live in a place like Riverhead.”

Read more about the NYCLU’s lawsuit and download a copy of the full complaint here.