Life in the SHU: An Inside Look

By Danny Varner written for Prison Lives

Originally published at the Huffington Post


Displaced from society, we are the faceless and rejected. We are wasting unnecessary years as a punishment, denied basic human rights, comforts, and relief. We've lost our freedom because we temporarily lost sight of what mattered most. But for many of us, our punishment is much greater than what we were sentenced to, as we're forced to reside in a place where we may never find ourselves again.

We are displaced from the general population of prisoners, locked away in a prison inside a prison. Housed in the SHU, short for Special Housing Unit, we are segregated into isolated cells where we remain on lockdown for almost all of every day. Housed under one of three classifications -- administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, or protective custody -- we are all treated the same. We all live in what amounts to solitary confinement, except with a cellmate.

Upon arrival, even though our classifications are separated by policy, we don't know in advance whether we will be housed with someone who is violent, mentally unstable, disabled or elderly. With no intercoms or panic buttons, assaults brought on by being housed with the wrong person, or other medical emergencies, often fall on deaf ears. Hours may go by before a severe need is known by staff.

Leaving a cell is more akin to removal from it. Hands behind our backs, we are required to stoop down to a slot in the bars that doubles as the porthole for our meal tray. We extend our arms through to be shackled by handcuffs. Refusal results in being coated in pepper spray until we comply. 

Some cells have showers. Most do not. For those of us without, we are escorted, cuffed, to a shower in a cage. We are afforded ten minutes. To shower three times per week is a luxury.

If conditions allow, we are given the privilege of as much outdoor recreation time as can be enjoyed in a cell-sized cage for one hour. Although slated for up to five days each week, the safety and security of the entire prison always takes precedence. Weather and lockdowns often deny us of our privilege.

Cleanliness of the cell is our responsibility. But the SHU presents unique challenges that fight against those efforts. Cleaning supplies are only afforded occasionally, never allowed to be stored in our cells. When they are accessible, they are used to fight the effects of the dirtiness of roaches, infections, and diseases that often prevail, potentially fed by what remains in the toilets that only flush when a timer tells them to do so. Tellingly, correctional officers always don latex gloves.

The age of the prison and its location makes for a chilly stay. The authorized single small blanket offers only weak protection, which is often restricted to nighttime use only. Beds must be made in a military style by day. Complaints go ignored.

Senior staff members make rounds in what are known as "walk-throughs," designed to give us the option of airing complaints or express our needs. Rarely are these actually heard, though, much less acted on.

Food in the SHU? Cold and spartan. Canteen can be purchased to supplement our diet, but the SHU drastically restricts those options for "security" reasons, regardless of whether we actually did anything wrong to land us here. If here for an extended stay, weight loss is guaranteed.

Contact with the outside world is limited to the stamps and writing materials that we can afford... or one phone call each month.

Displacement to this prison within a prison will take a toll. Where we may have lost our sight for a painfully lasting moment before, we are now confronted with the danger of losing our mind. Life was not meant to be lived this way. But with the loss of freedom came the loss of choice. All we can do is hope to survive.

Danny Varner is a guest writer for Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.

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