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What the SHU Is Like in Real Life: Solitary Confinement Can Drive Inmates Insane

You might have heard about it on Orange Is the New Black. It’s much worse than you imagined.

Solitary confinement, a.k.a. “the SHU” (Special Housing Unit—a euphemism if I ever saw one) for longer than 15 days has been classified by the United Nations as torture that can cause permanent psychological damage.

But it’s still pretty common in the United States. For example, Pelican Bay Prison in California regularly keeps more than one-third of its inmates in solitary. Up until 2014, Rikers Island prison in New York would put 16- and 17-year-old children in solitary (another euphemism alert—“punitive segregation”). They were forced to change that policy, no longer allowing inmates 21 and younger to be placed into solitary.


“Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I've experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn't take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”

William Blake, inmate “housed” in solitary for over 26 years

Solitary usually means spending between 22 and 24 hours a day alone in a cell. A thin mattress on a concrete slab is your bed, and perhaps three times a week guards allow you a 15-minute shower, while stil shackled. They have another concrete box for exercise that might or might not have an uncovered ceiling. If it’s uncovered, you might actually get to see the sky.

Here’s a video, iIlustrated by artist Molly Crabapple, that really opened my eyes: