'The SHU' is a place where prisoners might be sent, and it can actually drive them insane.
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Open Society Foundations

According to the UN, solitary confinement for 15 days or more is considered torture that can cause permanent psychological damage.

But prisons in the United States still use these "Special Housing Units," aka "SHU," aka the "Shoe."

Some, like Pelican Bay Prison in California, keep over one-third of inmates in solitary. Up until last year, Rikers prison in New York would even put 16- and 17-year-old children in solitary (though they euphemistically renamed it "punitive segregation"). They were forced to change that policy.


The estimated number of people in solitary confinement right now in the United States. Image via Fusion/YouTube.

As brought out in the video below, solitary confinement usually means spending between 22 and 24 hours a day alone in your cell. A concrete slab with a thin mattress is your bed, and perhaps three times a week, guards shackle you for a 15-minute shower. The only exercise you get is pacing around another concrete box that, if you're lucky, might have an uncovered ceiling. Because that's the only way you'll see the sky.

In 2013, 30,000 California prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement.

It got people talking and brought attention to the problem.

One of the biggest concerns (in addition to that whole torture thing) is that the reasons inmates are sent to solitary confinement can be pretty arbitrary and subjective.

Someone can be sent there because of the book they're reading or their religious or political affiliation, gender status, or sexual orientation. Or for the infamous "gang affiliation," a catchall phrase that pretty much means anybody can be sent there for any reason.

Some women have even been sent to solitary for reporting rape by prison guards — for their "safety." Ahem.

Just some of the reasons an inmate might go to the "Shoe." Image via Fusion/YouTube.

There are some inmates who have spent decades in solitary.

People like William Blake, who has been in a solitary cell at a New York State prison since 1988.

"Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I've experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn't take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths." — William Blake, inmate

The clip below gets to the heart of it, with help from illustrator Molly Crabapple.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.