The Special Housing Unit (SHU – a/k/a Solitary or The Hole)

The SHU is well known as the prison within the prison since most people end up there only after they’ve done something wrong.  However, there are a number of other reasons you might be sent there temporarily.

  1. Upon entry to prison.  It may be too late to assign you to a bunk when you arrive or the prison might be full, which can last from one to several days.
  2. The night before a medical procedure, such as a colonoscopy, when you’re not supposed to eat anything, and the prison wants to ensure compliance.
  3. For your own safety.  If there’s a perceived threat against you on the compound, the prison might take this initiative for a short while.  This can occur because of some press article, appearing in an episode of American Greed, or as a result of ongoing cooperation, among other reasons. 
  4. You might also be fearful for some reason and may make the request yourself by asking a CO or a lieutenant.  It’s typically temporary but for some inmates like Anthony, a fellow instructor in Education, it lasted the entire final two years of his bid.
  5. While you’re under investigation for some incident at the prison.  It could be anything from threatening someone over the phone, overtly gambling by calling in bets to an outside bookie, running a business from prison, getting into a fight, or being caught with drugs or a cell phone.  Basically, anything that can lead to a serious shot (explained in Chapter 9).  I was, for example, in the SHU after getting jumped on the basketball court, until they finally cleared me.
  6. Punishment for being found guilty after getting a serious shot and conviction at an internal prison hearing.

The SHU itself, is a separate building on the compound or, in the case of a Camp, located in an adjoining higher security prison.  You’ll have no advance notice of when you’re being picked up but there are clues to look out for.  It always begins with an unexpected call to the Lieutenant’s Office (or Officer’s Station, in the case of a Camp) or SIS officers arriving to escort you.  Now, you could be called to the Lieutenant’s Office for other reasons (i.e. urine test) but it’s best to be prepared just in case.  The thing is, once you go the LT’s office you won’t be allowed back to your bunk and fellow inmates will swarm like vultures if you’re not careful.  So, take your time, clean up your bunk, lock your locker and even take a shower, you may not get another one for days.  I learned the hard way, going straight from Rec, and was completely miserable.     

If you’re going to the SHU for any reason other than a medical visit, then you’ll be re-assigned to the SHU and lose your bunk.  The Unit CO packs up your stuff the next day in a duffel or garbage bag(s) and has them brought to the SHU.  Expect stuff to be missing because, in addition to inmate pilfering, the CO isn’t exactly happy with this extra duty. 

All inmates are treated equally harsh in the SHU, regardless of why you’re there.  The rules are strict because the SHU is primarily intended to mete out punishment.  So, to get things started, you’ll be cuffed from behind the back, escorted in, and placed in a small, locked in area and uncuffed to change into an orange jumpsuit.  You’ll then be re-cuffed and escorted to a cell.  It could be a one-person cell for solitary confinement, or you might be placed with another inmate.  You can expect something around 6 x 12 feet with a bunk bed, the classic metallic toilet/sink combo, perhaps a small desk and chair, and a window staring out into nowhere.

You’ll have none of your belongings at the outset and may have to wait as long as 30 days to receive them.  You won’t be allowed to have everything though, just your radio, paper, pens, letters, stamps, and some food.  A book cart is wheeled by once a day with a small selection and you can ask for one, if you’re awake at the time (otherwise wait till tomorrow).  Meals are served three times a day, like normal, and you can buy commissary once a week but from an abbreviated list.  There are no emails and you only get one phone call a week.  Rec time is once a day, only on weekdays, for an hour, in an outdoor cage maybe twice the size of your cell.  Showers are three days a week.  Boredom wears on you quickly, especially in solitary.  The prison has the right to keep you in the SHU for up to 90 days, which may be extended for another 90.  Your Counselor is supposed to check in on you within the first week, to see if she or he can be of assistance, according to the Prison Handbook.  I put in a request to see mine after two weeks passed, only to have her arrive screaming that she wasn’t at my beck and call.  Typical.  You can send and receive US mail and write Cop Outs as well as BP Form complaints (covered in Chapter 9) from the SHU.  One inmate is selected as SHU orderly, which gets you out of the cell but at the price of doing work.  Offering to volunteer is an option.

I spent 30 days in the SHU under both investigation and for my own protection, according to SIS, and found the SHU COs to be particularly contentious.  I had one eye swollen totally shut, at the time, and asked for ice.  The officer threw in a big garbage bag and told me to use it sparingly because that was all I was getting.  The concept of melting, I suppose, was foreign to him.  Then again, I got lucky he paid any attention to me at all.  Most simply ran by when doing rounds, ignoring me altogether.

Some inmates wear going to the SHU like a badge of honor.  Especially at higher security prisons.  I met one guy, a member of the Tangos, who spent over one-third of his 15-year bid in the SHU, losing two-and-a-quarter-years of good time along the way. 

Getting released from the SHU is very liberating.  You’ll report back to your same Unit, and the CO will assign you to a new bunk.  I did get catch a break with one SHU CO who, kindly enough, pre-assigned me to a two-man cell upon my departure.  That was pretty nice of her.