“Toilets Explode on Set of ‘Orange is the New Black,'” the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union announced this week in a release about a Long Island jail.
The group is suing Suffolk County over conditions at its Riverhead facility, which according to the NYCLU include vermin, extreme heat and cold, and free-floating feces that spewed from exploding toilets.
If it sounds like something out of Netflix’s women-in-prison drama, the NYCLU says the connection doesn’t end there: Riverhead, it declares in its release, is “the real jail… where the show is filmed.”
That claim is not entirely true. The show has shot at the jail for only two days, and films most of its on-location prison scenes at a former children’s psychiatric hospital that now stands empty except during shoots. Other filming takes place on sets.
But that hasn’t stopped the NYCLU from cannily seizing on the excitement about the second season of the show to try to force progress on its stalled, two-year-old lawsuit against Suffolk County.
“I don’t really get the correlation between that [lawsuit] and ‘Orange Is the New Black,'” said Michael Sharkey, chief of staff for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, in an interview with TheWrap. The sheriff’s department oversees the jail.
“They filmed a portion of one episode of one season here. They were here for two days. I think that the title of their press release is somewhat misleading in that way,” he continued. “I really don’t know why they would make that connection.”
For publicity, of course.
Besides the news release, the NYCLU is mounting a campaign calling on Suffolk County to improve prison conditions at Riverhead and another facility, Yaphank.
The campaign encourages fans of the show — and anyone, really, who supports humane prisons — to post online photos of themselves dressed in orange, holding signs that say Humanity Is The New Black. (That phrase is also the movement’s hashtag.)
The only problem, according to Suffolk County, is that the prison is already humane.
“All jails in New York State are monitored by the New York State Department of Corrections, and they have conditions that have to be met. We meet those standards,” said Sharkey.
The NYCLU is suing on behalf of those who have been held at the jail, which, unlike the prison in the show, has an overwhelmingly mostly male population. Many of those being held have not been convicted, and are still awaiting trial.
“The men are forced to live in overcrowded conditions, amidst filth, overflowing sewage, and pervasive mold, rust, and vermin,” the lawsuit says, adding that those jailed “lack access to clean drinking water and safe food, as well as basic necessities such as sanitary and properly functioning sinks, toilets, and showers. Rodents and insects invade their living areas and contaminate their food.”
“In the winter, the men sleep in freezing cells, made colder still by leaking water that drips into their sleeping quarters. They attempt to stave off the cold with a single worn blanket. These conditions, independently and through their mutually reinforcing effects, produce a serious deprivation of basic human needs,” the suit adds.
The NYCLU has also shared accounts from former inmates like Jason Porter, who said that one night during his two-month stay, almost every toilet at Riverhead exploded.
“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.”
Sharkey and the Suffolk County Attorney’s Office told TheWrap they couldn’t respond to specific complaints because of the pending litigation. Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The NYCLU says that though the lawsuit was filed in April 2012, the jail has refused to make “even basic fixes to jail infrastructure and is actively stalling discovery in the lawsuit.”
Enter “Orange Is The New Black.” The group hopes piggybacking on the show’s success will brings news coverage like the story you’re reading now.
The new season of “Orange Is The New Black” premieres Friday. No settlement is in sight in real life.