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Lawyers say the real ‘Orange is the New Black’ jail is worse than the fictional one

This image released by Netflix shows Kate Mulgrew, left, and Lorraine Toussaint in a scene from “Orange is the New Black.” The second season of the prison series will be available June 6  on Netflix. (JoJo Whilden/Netflix via AP)

Can viewers of a popular show about a prison be turned into prison-reform activists?

That is the idea behind #HumanityIsTheNewBlack, a social media campaign launched this week by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP, which hope to harness interest and buzz in the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black” to call attention to conditions at the real-life jail where parts of the show were filmed.

Viewers of the drama about life in a women’s prison know about the lack of bathroom privacy, the inedible food and cramped conditions that Piper Chapman and her fellow inmates have to deal with. But lawyers and inmates say reality at Suffolk County’s Riverhead jail is much harsher.

The NYCLU is asking fans of the show to help “fix the Orange is the New Black jail” by writing to Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive.

“Orange is the New Black” has been praised for humanizing a population of people that is routinely written off, discounted and often mistreated. Based on a memoir of the same name, the show has attracted a cult of binge-watchers, scooped up several awards and launched national conversations about transgender Americans and the prison population. Although actual viewership numbers are hard to come by, “OITNB” is Netflix’s most successful original series, with 3 million viewers by some estimates.

Parts of the show’s second season, which kicked off Friday, were filmed at the Riverhead jail. Among the complaints in a lawsuit filed by the NYCLU: Toilets that inmates refer to as “ping pong toilets,” because when they are flushed  they overflow into another cell; mold-covered showers; and brown, undrinkable water.

“If you saw what we have seen and heard happening in this jail, you might think that it is Hollywood pushing it, but in fact that’s the reality,” said Corey Stoughton, a senior staff attorney at NYCLU who has been working on the case. “These are not conditions that we think any human being should be held in.”

Inmates initially filed separate lawsuits, but they were so numerous that the court reached out to NYCLU to bundle the cases for a class-action lawsuit filed against Suffolk County in 2012.

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Michael Sharkey, chief of staff in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, said he could not address the lawsuit. But he said this about New York jails: “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.”

Here, Jason Porter, 33, describes what he experienced during his two-month stay at the Riverhead jail for a misdemeanor charge:


Stoughton said that most of the people being housed at the Riverhead jail are there because they couldn’t make bail and haven’t been convicted of a crime.

She said she is a fan of the show but hasn’t caught up on the second season just yet.

“It started at a personal level for me. I binge-watched the first season and found out that they were going to be filming there,” Stoughton said. “It is about making the connection between the people who watch the show and acting on that and seeing that these conditions are unacceptable.”

UPDATE: Michael Sharkey, chief of staff in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, returned a call from She The People and reiterated that he can’t comment on an open lawsuit. But he said the two facilities that house about 1,500 inmates and are the subject of the NYCLU lawsuit are regularly visited and reviewed by officials from New York State Commission of Correction.

“They demand certain conditions being met, and we consistently meet those conditions,” he said.

As for whether “OITNB” accurately portrays jail conditions, Sharkey said he isn’t a regular viewer but was at the jail when part of an episode was filmed over a two-day period.

“‘Orange is the New Black” is a TV show; it’s not a documentary,” he said.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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