View Full Version : An inmate's description of SHU

02-08-2013, 11:41 AM
This is from an email friend of mine at Ft. Dix, a low security FCI. My friend recently spent 6 weeks in SHU and I thought some of you might get some insight from this about SHU life.

English is not his first language and this summary is peppered with Hebrew phrases, but I think you will still be able to get the idea. I was surprised to read he said they were offered exercise every week day. Often it is far less than that.

(Feb. 6, 2013)

What Is The Meaning Of The SHU? How Does It Look? What Does It Mean To Be There?

This is a continuation, as I wrote before, of what the SHU is, and what it means to be there. It is difficult to
even explain to people who haven't been in jail what jail means. The fact has proven itself that people who
have never been to jail can never truly imagine what they will face when they actually do, ch"v, come to jail.
And that is speaking of jail in itself. But the SHU is an even greater challenge than jail itself. Nevertheless,
I shall try to explain to you the best I can, be"H.

The definition of SHU is "Special Housing Unit". The prison is divided into separate buildings (called Units).
And the SHU is a separate building from these, on the Compound, yet with greatly increased security
measures surrounding it and within it. When you look at the SHU building from afar, you can't necessarily see
any major differences. But from within, it is a totally different world and experience.

The same guards who work in the SHU also work in the other Units on the Compound. But in the SHU, the way
the guards and other people act is totally different in all aspects, as shall be explained, be"H. In the SHU, the
inmates wear totally different clothes. All clothes are reddish-orange. The t-shirts, pants, socks, boxers,
slip-on shoes, even towels and sheets and blankets are reddish-orange.

While in the SHU, an inmate cannot move around anywhere except within his tiny room. Any time an inmate
is taken outside his room (to the shower or visit or doctor or lawyer, etc.), an inmate is constantly handcuffed
behind his back. The guards will not open your cell door without first handcuffing you through a small slot in
the door.

The size of the room is tiny. There is a bunk-bed (made of a metal frame with a plastic, hard mattress with
no pillow), a tiny table with barely enough room for one person with a swing-out "chair" which is attached to the
table and which is exceedingly uncomfortable, a toilet/sink which are attached to each other in the other corner,
and the door. There's a tinted window through which a person can't see out, nor can people see in from outside.
The floor-space in the room is about enough for 2 people to lie down. The floor is made of concrete, and so is
the ceiling. Besides the inhumane living conditions of the cells as they are presently used, in fact the cells were
originally designed to only have one occupant.

Don't think you are alone in the cell. There are always 2 people in each cell (with, as mentioned, a table for only
one person). And recently the SHU has been over-filled, so there are actually 3 people per cell, with one person
laying on a plastic mattress on the floor. And, as mentioned, whenever they open the cell, even for just one
person, every person in the cell has to be handcuffed first. Even if in the middle of the night, if one person has
to leave the cell for any reason, all others are woken up and handcuffed first.

Every cell door, when it's opened, must immediately be locked again. Even between every few cell doors, there
are more gates which must be unlocked and locked again immediately to get through.


If someone is sick, ch"v, it is very terrible - especially if it's a serious issue. A huge number of people in the
prison take medicine each day for depression. And, to an even greater extent, most people in the SHU take
anti-depressant medication as well.

But besides this, medical services in prison in general and the SHU specifically are terrible. The doctors and
physicians' assistants who work in prison usually could not get a job outside on the street. In order to get
medical help here, you usually need to go every day to the Medical Department and beg and beg. If you have a
cold or flu, they may see you in a few weeks, after the problem is already gone. If you need any serious help, it
can take months or years before they get it for you. People with kidney stones often have to wait 6-9 months
between each visit to the hospital outside to get some of the stones broken up. (They only break up some of
the stones each time). And for anything more serious, you often have to get your congressmen involved or
other outside pressure. Even to get a pair of prescription glasses usually takes a year!

But in the SHU, there is an extra problem. Because the cell doors are constantly locked, if there is an
emergency all of a sudden, the only way to get the attention of an officer is to pound on the door as hard as you
can. Sometimes the officers come right away, and sometimes they ignore the banging on the door. So it's very
difficult. A person could literally have a heart attack and die on the floor, waiting for a long long time before
anyone would come around to know about it. Hashem should keep any Yid from getting sick in prison!


A person receives a shower only 3 times per week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday). Again, as you are led to the
shower, you are handcuffed. As you exit the room while handcuffed (any time you are led out of the room, at the
minimum 1 officer guides you by grabbing onto your shirt and leading you (like by a dog-collar and leash), and if
you have to stop walking at any moment, you must face the wall. When you step out of the room for any reason,
you walk out backwards and face the wall.), you are patted down, and your room is searched for any "contraband"
(any extra sheet, towel or food item left from your tray), and anything the guards wish to take away, they do.
You have nothing in the first place, and they take away even that nothing. The soap and shampoo from the
shower (which is really the same thing, as it's a soap/shampoo in one) is truly junky. Once you wash yourself off,
you don't even feel the benefit. When you're brought to the shower, it is another cage, and your handcuffs are
removed once you step in, through the bars of the cage. Once you go through the process, it's really no comfort.


Each time you take a shower (thrice per week), they give you a "new" set of boxers, shirt and socks. These have
been laundered by the people in the SHU, but really it's just switching clothes between inmates. You are not
allowed a single article of your own clothing. Once a week you are allowed a "new" set of uniform pants.


The only food you have is what they provide you. The food is very limited in general, and when you have to eat
kosher, it's even worse. Out on the Compound you can buy various food items from Commissary (the "store").
But while in the SHU, there are no Commissary food items. And when they give you your food in the SHU, what
they do is open a little slot in the metal door and toss in the tray which you have to quickly grab before it falls to
the ground.


Commissary is exceedingly limited in the SHU. There is no food, as mentioned before. You can only get one box
of Oreo Cookies OR Unsalted Crackers per week. You can also get a book of stamps, 2 batteries (for a radio),
pen, paper. And that's it.


For correspondence, you can only make one telephone call, once a month. And if you are on "restriction" (if you
are being "punished" for some so-called "misdeed", then you can't even get that one telephone call per month).
But you can write letters. But the mail is very slow - maybe you'll get your mail in a few weeks (actually the mail
system in the whole prison is quite bad). So basically, we are waiting all day, every day urgently, hoping and
hoping for a letter from someone. It's pretty much our only contact with the outside world.


You can only receive a visit once a week on Thursdays. You have to come early at about 6am because only the
first 10 people who get in line outside are allowed to visit. When they lead an inmate from the SHU, they close
the whole compound, and escort the inmates in handcuffs, being led by officers through the compound. Before
going into a visit, an inmate is patted-down. And on the way out, each inmate is strip-searched (actually that
happens for all inmates, not just in the SHU).


Five days per week, in the early morning, the officers come around while you're in the SHU asking if anyone
wants to go to Recreation. If you do want, you have to be up and at the door to make sure they hear you say
'yes'. Then they come back around later to take out a handful of people at a time. You're placed in a larger
cage for Recreation. There are four cages right next to each other. And the guards put a few inmates in
each cage. You can't really do anything there except walk around in a bit larger of a cage. In the cage, you
look exactly like an animal in the zoo. When they take you there and back, again, you are handcuffed. You
used to be able to see outside and shout at inmates on the Compound, relaying messages. But then the prison
covered-over the windows so people couldn't continue talking to those outside. There's a bit of fresh air that
comes through, however. You get to stay in this larger cage for about an hour per day. The rest of the time
you're locked back in your small cell in the SHU.


There is no legal access. You have to make an appointment to go to the Legal Library in the SHU where there
is a computer. Only one person is allowed in there at a time. And you only have one hour. Again, you are
handcuffed on the way there and back.


Besides all of the above, even the process of going into and exiting the SHU is a terrible experience. And
in some aspects, entering and exiting the SHU even over-shadows the other aspects of being in the SHU.

When a person is about to go to the SHU, they are usually quite upset and in dread. They know that they are
about to lose most of their property. As the officers pack up a person's property, everything is rummaged
through. And food items or toiletries that are open are thrown in the garbage. The officers even just leave
items in your locker or in your room for anyone to take. Anything that they deem you should not have, they
take and throw in the garbage.

A person also knows that they are about to have pretty much no contact with the outside world for an indefinite
amount of time. They may have privileges revoked upon returning to the Compound (i.e. visits, telephone,
email, commissary), and possibly loss of "Good Time" (47 days off of each year you serve in prison). A person
knows he will be locked in a small room and it will be terrible living conditions. The person loses his former
room, bed and locker.

As a person is taken to the SHU, often the officers close the Compound. But sometimes they just lead the
inmate in handcuffs across the Compound, shouting at the other inmates to stay far away.

When a person is released from the SHU, they need to carry all of their property that remains across the
Compound to their Unit. It can be very heavy, and some people aren't strong enough to carry it. They may need
to wait outside for some inmate to volunteer to help them. It is a relief to get out. But it's also a difficult thing,
knowing that you have to get "set-up" again (getting established and buying more food and settling into your new
room/bed, etc.).


It is fair to say that being in the SHU is an inhumane experience. It is like you are an animal in a zoo. You are
treated with disrespect without any rights. In fact, most people are very scared of ever having to go to the SHU
and they dread it.

For a Yid, being in the SHU is even more difficult. Religious rights and opportunities are exceedingly limited.
Kosher food is exceedingly limited. Most people lose a lot of weight when they go to the SHU; even more-so for
an observant Yid.


In closing, I would like to bring forth what the Mishna says: "hevei mispallel b'shloimah shel malchus, she'ilmalei
mora'ah, ish es rei'eihu chayim b'la'o" (pray for the peace/well-being of the government, because if not for the
fear of it, each person would consume his fellow). So from the other side of the issue, without the existence of
the SHU and people being scared of it, every day people would be killed and robbed and beaten up, etc. on the
Compound. The only reason this doesn't occur is because people are scared of going to the SHU.

We can see that, although it is so bad, it can be of great benefit. Whoever is in the SHU has a bitter experience.
But we do need its existence. Yet, as shown, for whomever is there, the experience is truly bitter.

May Hashem help that a Yid should never be in the SHU, nor prison altogether. And we should always be able to
give you good news,

02-08-2013, 12:50 PM
Thank you for sharing that. It was very sad but true description.