While technically, SHU can be used to describe any prison's isolation facility, it commonly refers to the unit of the Pelican Bay State Prison ("Pelican Bay"), located in Folsom, California.
The term SHU (pronounced "SHOE") alludes to the housing unit itself and/or the Draconian policies that comprise its operations program. The goal of the program is to "monitor, control and isolate" about 1,200 of the most volatile and dangerous inmates in the California prison system.
When compared to the freedoms and luxuries enjoyed by minimum to medium-security offenders (visitors, T.V. and telephone privileges, uncensored mail, etc.), or even to the generally restrictive standards of maximum security inmates housed in the general population, the SHU is considered oppressive:
All inmates are kept in solitary confinement (a.k.a. lockdown.) Housed in cells (called pods) made of solid concrete, they make communication with others virtually impossible.
Prisoners are on lockdown 22.5 hours every day, allowed out for only 90 minutes to stretch and excercise in an enclosed space. Less than 20 feet long, this "yard" provides no view, save for a patch of skylight creeping in from the exposed roof.
The austere living conditions and isolation have created an environment of continual mental distress. Many inmates report feeling pychologically broken and a greatly diminshed (if not wholly extinguished) sense of identity; not surprising when the posessions and activities commonly used to define a life (clothes, food, friends, etc.) are forbidden.
Some even struggle to maintain a basic state of sanity. Many inmates sufffer from depression and/or mental illness, and the SHU has limited access to services and treatment. All of the units reserved to meet mental health needs are full, leaving untreated inmates on a prolonged waiting list.
Shoe program, nigga! Twenty-three hour lockdown!
-Denzel Washington, as Alonzo Harris, in "Training Day"
A focal point in many films on crime/prison in California, the SHU was recently (and perhaps most famously) mentioned in the 2001 film Training Day.
Starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, it portrays 'a day in the life' of a "narc": on L.A.'s mean streets, and chronicles the final 24 hours of a corrupt narcotics detective who's about to reap the full harvest of the evil sown during his career.
Both Washington and Hawke were nominated for top honors in their film categories (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively). Denzel Washington took home the 2001 Best Actor Oscar for Training Day at the 74th Annual Academy Awards. He was the second African-American actor to receive the award; the first since Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, 1963).