What Life Is Actually Like in the Prison From 'Orange Is the New Black'

A still from the netflix show 'Orange Is the New Black

The second season of acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came out on Friday. But before you binge-watch all the episodes in one sitting, take a moment to consider its setting and the accuracy of its representation of prison life.

The inmates on Orange Is the New Black deal with some dicey living conditions. But their struggles pale in comparison to the experience of prisoners at Riverhead Jail in Suffolk County on Long Island, N.Y., where several scenes from the show are filmed.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is launching a campaign to call attention to inhumane living conditions at Riverhead Jail and other Suffolk County correctional facilities, encouraging New Yorkers to wear orange and contact Suffolk County officials. The NYCLU filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Suffolk County and its sheriff Vincent DeMarco, among other defendants, challenging the condition of its prisons. 

If you want to get informed before you tune in to the second season, here's how prison life at the fictional Litchfield Prison stacks up to living conditions at real Suffolk County jails:

The first scene of Orange Is the New Black shows us series protagonist Piper Chapman showering with makeshift maxi pad flip flops on her feet.

"Oh, honey. There's wicked fungus in the showers," her cellmate warns her.

Piper eventually uses her commissary money to buy some flip flops, and her fungus problem is permanently solved.

But the shower situation at Riverhead Jail is much worse. As former inmate Jason Porter recalls in a moving video journal, "The shower itself is disgusting. There was different types of molds and funguses growing on the shower — out and around the shower."

And the shower mold at Riverhead Jail can't be sidestepped by wearing flip flops. As the NYCLU's 2012 complaint notes, the showers are "coated with unavoidable thick, black mold and reek of mildew."

As Porter notes, getting a skin rash from the showers is almost inevitable: "You're gonna get something."

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The inmates in Orange Is the New Black have exactly one close call with a rodent in the first season. When Piper and Janae attempt to fix some wires in an air vent in episode seven, they discover that a rat has chewed through them.

But the rodents in Suffolk County jails are a bit more ubiquitous. At one facility, the NYCLU notes, there are "widespread vermin infestations." Rodents make regular appearances in "housing and food preparation areas." Inmates report that pests "are everywhere" and cannot be avoided.

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3) Bathroom

The major problem with the Orange Is the New Black bathrooms is that only one stall has a door, and that stall is perpetually occupied by a woman who is talking to her boyfriend Diablo on a contraband cell phone. When Piper confiscates her cell phone, the woman kicks down the door in anger.

"That was the only place in this prison I could take a shit," Gloria laments.

In Suffolk County jails, however, privacy is the least of the prisoners' concerns. Sewage "regularly bubbles up from showers and toilets." At Riverhead in particular, flushing one toilet often causes sewage to bubble up from a nearby toilet, a phenomenon known as "ping-pong toilets."

At one point, former inmate Porter recalls, the toilets in Riverhead literally exploded, spraying waste "projectile, six to eight feet into the air." The prisoners were forced to crowd onto a small table for thirty hours while cleanup crews cleared the flood of feces on the floor.

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4) Food

Piper doesn't care for the food at Litchfield and, after accidentally referring to it as "disgusting" in front of the chef, she is denied food for days.

But not eating in Litchfield might be for the best since some food seems to be contaminated. Yoga Jones warns her not to eat the pudding in particular.

"It comes in big cans marked 'Desert Storm,'" she tells Piper. "Sometimes the kitchen has to scrape the mold off the top before they serve it."

But beyond this mention of mold on the pudding, the biggest problem that Litchfield's kitchen seems to face in the first season is a lack of fresh, quality ingredients, hence Red's fixation on the mythical chicken that wanders the grounds outside the prison.

In Suffolk County correctional facilities, mold is not restricted to a few menu items. The kitchens are "covered with mold, rust and chipping paint." Some prisoners have even been "served food containing rodent droppings."

The drinking water, too, is contaminated. Porter remembers that the drinking water at Riverhead was a "brownish, tannish color." Inmates further report that the water causes "stomachaches, cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea."

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5) Air quality

When Pennsatucky tries to hang her cross on a pipe in Litchfield's chapel, she brings the entire ceiling crashing down with it. In the aftermath, prison guard George Mendez notes that the chapel is now covered in "asbestos, rat shit and toxic mold." The prisoners are forced to clean up the mess, but there are not enough dust masks for everyone to protect themselves from the asbestos.

But asbestos is not an incidental occurrence in Riverhead Jail, where pipes continually "leak asbestos" and the air "reeks" of mold. As Porter notes, "Riverhead was not maintained for so many years that the problems with the facility can't be controlled." Prisoners are simply expected to inhale toxic air without any promise of repairs.

Image Credit: Unspoiled Podcasts

The NYCLU doesn't want you to stop watching Orange Is the New Black. But they do want you to know that the version of prison life you see on the show only scratches the surface of the living conditions at actual Suffolk County prisons.

"We are huge fans of Orange Is the New Black," says Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. "But a big part of our story is what won't be shown on TV."

The NYCLU hopes that the show can provide an initial "glimpse into the lives of incarcerated people" that can spur outrage at the living conditions that actual incarcerated people face.

So click "play all" on that second season, but also click over to the NYCLU website and take a moment to show support and concern for the people who actually have to live in the show's filming locations.