Dress Behind Bars

What does an inmate look like?  Specifically, what does a prisoner wear?  Orange jumpsuits and black and white striped uniforms come to my mind, as I am sure would be the case with many individuals asked these questions.

Until I enrolled in a Criminology course this semester, I had never thought more about it.  These were potential Halloween costumes for little kids, but nothing more.  My eyes have since been opened and finding an entire book on this topic made me realize the true magnitude of this topic and the depth with which prisoners’ clothing can be analyzed.

Juliet Ash, a dress history connoisseur and author of Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality, delves into the subject.  In examining the significance of the clothing demanded of inmates, a glimpse into the life of a prisoner is gained.  The uniformity of clothing is significant, as is the way in which criminal institutions use clothing as a way of exerting power and often as a method of degrading.  The history of prisoner clothing has been closely linked to various eras in the treatment of criminals, with it generally being used as a form of punishment.

Having grown up in Philadelphia, I am accustomed to hearing ‘street’ lingo and listening to constant news of crimes.  I have heard countless complaints about the criminal justice system.  My Criminology course has taught me to view the criminal justice system from many different viewpoints and obscure perspectives.  Yet, I never would have guessed how much I could learn through a thorough examination of clothing.  Psychological dispositions, family backgrounds, attitudes towards police, prison environments, and many other factors would spring to mind as possible topics to consider in analyzing the history of the criminal justice system, but it took an interesting book by Juliet Ash to enlighten me as to the possibility of clothing as a mechanism for analyzing criminality.

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13 Responses

  1. I find this article very interesting, especially after having completed my Seminar in Law and Society capstone this past semester. The prison system is a fascinating organization to study. I am particularly interested in the classification of inmates within a prison. In the Lewisburg Penitentiary, the prison used to be structured so as to separate inmates based on the severity and/or type of crime committed. Very offensive titles were used by prison guards and management to identify the different classifications of inmates. It would be interesting to analyze further the sociological results of these different structural set-ups. Other prisons dress inmates differently based upon crime severity. Do prisoners interact differently with one another when they are aware of the types of crimes their peers committed? Interesting to think about…

    • Great questions. I imagine their is research about the topic. What would really be fascinating is if the categorizations of the guards are at all similar to the ways managers see different types of employees in workplaces marked by very strong control imperatives and technologies.

      Or teachers and students…

  2. This is a very interesting topic to look into. While you and molly know more about the criminology and law end of things, I have studied fashion and clothing. So much of what we wear is made that way for a very specific reason, yet most who wear clothing don’t realize that. For example, the look of business suits with colors and ties is used to draw your eye up to the persons face. Color and texture also read very differently depending on a persons cultural associations. I know that in prisons back in California inmate uniforms are just that, as uniform as possible, to eliminate gang affiliations within prison. The funny thing is that many schools have moved to uniforms in my hometown area to accomplish the same thing as in the prisons, eliminate gang affiliations.

    • Does that mean schools are more like prisons or prisons like schools than we may think at first consideration?

  3. Why do we need to understand how prisons exert power or degrade prisoners? Is it merely academic interest?

    • I think that identifying the manners in which prisons exert power and degrade prisoners is vital to beginning to understand the mindsets of prisoners and criminals. The motivations and attitudes of these individuals are greatly influenced by others and by the environments they are in, as with any organization. Therefore, it is not only interesting to study as many aspects may be revealing of similar situations in other organizational settings, but also because it is imperative that we understand the psyches of criminals so that we can determine the best mechanisms by which to reform these individuals. As a psychology major, I have learned the importance of identifying underlying causes and influences in order to be able to determine solutions.

  4. […] Dress Behind Bars What does an inmate look like? Specifically, what does a prisoner wear? Orange jumpsuits and black and white striped uniforms come to my mind, as I am sure would be the case with many individuals asked these questions. (Blorg Theory, 23.02.2010) […]

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  6. Does anyone have any pictures of the different styles of clothing in different eras behind bars? Or can I find all of this in the book? What an interesting topic I have never even thought of before.

  7. I live in Ireland and due to the work I do have visited many of our prisons. The majority of my time has been spent visiting St. Patrick’s Institution which is a prison for males aged 16-21 years. In Irish prisons prisoners can usually wear their own clothes – with a few exceptions – however, in St. Pats (as it is known locally) remand prisoners are not usually allowed wear their own clothes and are instead given cotton green shirts to wear. Doesn’t sound too bad I suppose but when you are a teenage boy it’s not so much fun. They are also only allowed one shower a week and have to wear the shirt for the week so sweat and stains are obviously a problem. Why is this done? I’m sure the prison would say for logistics and due to lack of resources but it also be viewed as a way (albeit completely ineffective) of ‘discouraging’ these young men from returning. In my opinion though it is degrading.

    • Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience! It is quite interesting to hear your opinion. I wonder if it actually does discourage the prisoners from returning? I would think that if they are going to be discouraged from committing further illegal acts, it will not be because of the clothing, but rather because of their entire prison experience.

  8. I always thought the reason prisoners wore the same thing is in the event that they escape, they would be easily identifiable to the outside population. God forbid ff a prisoner broke out of Lewisburg penitentiary, wouldn’t it be important that people would be able to identify the prisoner easily.

    • I honestly never thought about that, but it is a good point. However, what about prisons that have a uniform but it is not distinct in any way from what an ordinary individual may be wearing?

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