The Netflix series Orange Is the New Black paints a picture of jail life most of us would want to avoid. But it is sanitized as compared to the actual conditions at the Long Island jail where parts of the second season was filmed — a facility notorious for feces infestations, moldy food and showers, and medical neglect, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Inmates tell stories of overcrowded and deteriorating facilities where sewage spurts from toilets in their cells while they are on them, spills onto the floors at night, and emits fumes that causes regular vomiting, severe nausea and headaches. A 1997 New York Times article described the county correctional facility as “the most seriously and profoundly overcrowded county facility in the state.” The jail in Riverhead, New York, has been the subject of a long-running but unresolved lawsuit to improve conditions that the NYCLU says are inhumane.
While Orange Is the New Black uses the Suffolk County facility to depict a women’s prison in the second season that premiered Friday, it is in reality a men’s jail. And because it’s a jail — not a prison — most people housed there haven’t even been convicted of a crime and are held while they wait for a trial. Others have been convicted of relatively minor offenses that carry jail terms of a year or less.
“They don’t realize you’re a human being,” said Jason Porter, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit who spent two months at the Riverhead facility. “They don’t care if you’re a human being. … They see you like an animal. Because you committed a crime or supposedly committed a crime. And until the day the judge says you didn’t commit the crime, you’re an animal.”
The stark contrast between the real-life facility where the popular Netflix show is set and the fake prison also used by producers at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where one one entertainment reporter had a grand old time at a prison “sleepover,” is the catalyst for an NYCLU campaign, “Humanity is the new black.” New Yorkers donning orange are urging Suffolk County to invest funds into the facility it says has been neglected for decades, instead of expending its energy on “wooing Hollywood.”
While Orange Is the New Black is not as gruesome as its real-life equivalent, what it has achieved is putting a face to those who populate these facilities.
“Alright we may be inmates, prisoners when we go in,” Porter said. “But we’re still human beings.”