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What Inmates Really Wear in Prison

An orange jumpsuit isn't the only thing inmates wear.

On Orange is the New Black, the prison uniform is a source of immediate discussion in episode one, when the main character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), is informed that she must wear orange until her new get-up arrives. Orange is for newbies; regulation khaki for regulars. It is a sign of Piper’s middleclass attitude that she balks at the boxy, ugly uniform in the brightest orange imaginable. Another inmate tells the new meat, "Don’t be so quick to want to lose the orange, because you’d just blend in with the beige."


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The creators of the show acknowledged that, while based on real uniforms, their costumes were specifically tailored for the interior world of the show. Jenn Rogien, who was also responsible for the clothing on HBO’s Girls, said in an interview that, while the color-cast system on Orange is invented, the clothing was sourced from places that make real prison fashion, in an attempt to be authentic—mixed with some "contraband" items.

The idea that was that such external discipline would bring about internal discipline

Prison uniforms actually came about as part of the general reform movement in the late 18th and 19th century. Prior to that time, prisons and jails were unruly, without organization or even set places to sleep. Wealthy people often opted, Martha-Stewart-style, to do their time in seclusion at home. Prisons and jails were mostly for the poor. As prisons became places of reform and spiritual change, regulations were imposed to make the inmates more disciplined, and how prisoners dressed became more of a psychological issue than a practical one. The idea that was that such external discipline would bring about internal discipline, which would surely reform the convict’s depraved character.

An upstart in this new frontier, the Duke of Richmond built a new Sussex jail in 1775 where upon entry, inmates were bathed, shaved, clothed in a uniform, and given a bed with blankets. This achieved uniformity and equality—no longer were wealthy inmates treated differently from the poor. The Victorians continued this tradition, regulating even the most insignificant of details in their mania for control. Inmates were given clothes and numbers in lieu of names. (Today, inmate receive numbers, but aren’t addressed by them.) Their possessions were limited. Upon entrance, inmates were given a new identity to separate their new "reformed" life from the old one.

chain gang

Image: Getty Images

The reality was, unsurprisingly, quite different. Clothes were uncomfortable and scratchy. Shoes didn’t fit. Food was inedible, often intentionally so (some prisons made it a habit to turn perfectly fine food into indigestible food). Beds were hard, and the work was difficult.

In the United States, a similar approach was adopted, heavily influenced by the Quakers’ idealization of a life of solitude, contemplation, and labor. Male convicts usually wore uniforms and were often put on display as workers, especially in the South. The "chain gang" would consist of men all wearing a uniform that marked them as inmates; they often also wore visible iron collars and chains and had shaved heads. This public spectacle served much the same purpose as the stockades. Around this time, the black-and-white stripes familiar from old movies came into vogue, marking the men in a way that would remain embedded in public memory.

Slowly, as time went on, prisons began to eliminate the stripes for more neutral colors and the familiar worker-like jumpsuits. New York switched to grey in 1904 because, according to an article in Slate, the stripes were "a badge of disgrace." Many states kept the stripes longer; North Carolina kept them until 1958.

As the fairer sex, women were exempt from these displays. Instead, their confinement was focused on their moral character. The goal of female prisons was to feminize—it was presumed that most women's crimes resulted from a failure to adhere to moral standards, rather than an animal nature than needed subduing.

style not forgotten

Image: CDCR

At the California Institution for Women (CIW), one of the oldest prisons for women, the first "uniforms" were nearly indistinguishable from regular clothing. In a newspaper clipping, titled "Style is Not Forgotten," women were described as wearing "gay prints chosen by the inmates themselves" in lieu of drab uniforms. "Each woman chose the style and fabric which she desired," it explains.

In the 1950s, when CIW moved to an isolated location east of Los Angeles, the pretense of uniforms was dropped. CIW Frontera, as it was then called, did not have gates or barbed wire or fences; its remote location made them unnecessary. While there were institutional rules, women could move with relative freedom and wear their own clothes, just like the staff. As gender equality swept the public sphere, women began to don uniforms. By the 1990s, women at CIW wore state-issued clothing just like the men. Some women at the time believed that the prison likewise became more de rigeur.

Today, uniforms generally serve the practical purpose of providing a means to differentiate inmates from civilians and staff as well as to distinguish custody levels. In California, for example, orange jumpsuits are reserved for new inmates who haven’t yet been classified. Those in the general population wear some variation of blue, white and grey—for men, jeans or blue scrubs-like pants and shirt, as well as white t-shirts and grey sweatshirts. Women wear the same basic clothing—blue and white shirts and blue, chambray or denim pants. Inmates working on the perimeter—including those outside the prison gates—wear a green jumpsuit.

The uniforms are made by the California Prison Industry Authority, which employs inmates in various institutions to produce items like furniture, electronics and clothing. For this "fast fashion," inmates are generally paid about $.30 to just under a dollar an hour; most of this money goes to restitution, fines, and a state-mandated fund for victims. You can order their clothing online. A lovely knit shirt (color: "Marina blue") will set you back just over $5.00; the pants, $15.00. Aside from the "CDCR" emblazoned on the clothing, it doesn’t look much different from typical casual wear.

And there are even some places that allow inmates to wear their street clothes, although fewer and fewer places permit this. At Clinton Correctional Facility, from which Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped on June 6th, street clothes are a privilege for inmates in the honor block who haven't committed any infractions. (The honor block has since been shut down.) Given the escape, it seems likely that all New York facilities will go the route of Michigan, which permitted street clothes until 1999, when it changed the uniform to dark blue and orange.

Prison blues are mild compared to the lengths that some jurisdictions go to humiliate inmates through clothing. Recalling the way many repressive regimes use nudity as a way to embarrass and demean people, jurisdictions like Maricopa County in Arizona—home of "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio—thought it necessary to force inmates to wear pink underwear. The office of the sheriff's website says that the pink underwear is to "prevent inmates from stealing the white shorts." Arpaio also thought it was clever to put the word "ESCAPEE" on the inside of inmates' uniforms, in case they should try to wear them inside out while on the run.

pink shorts

Image: Getty Images

And, as a sign that all trends really are cyclical, The New York Times reported in 2000 that some prisons and jails were returning to stripes. One reason was that colored jumpsuits were simply too popular with prisoners and didn’t look punitive enough. However, civilians love the classic look: after an elected sheriff in Davidson County, N.C. forced jailed men to wear stripes, he won by a landslide. "The public loves them," the sheriff reportedly said about the stripes. Arpaio also brought back the black-and-white stripes because, as he claims on his website, it makes inmates "easier to identify." (Arpaio also brought back the chain gang.) Just recently, a Michigan jail brought back the black-and-white stripe because the orange had become too popular due to the Netflix series.

As a psychological tool, uniforms also influence civilians, not just the prisoners wearing them. There’s some evidence to show that jurors are more inclined to believe that a defendant wearing a jumpsuit is more likely to be guilty than one who is not. As a result, defense attorneys in high-profile cases routinely request permission for their client to wear street clothes. O.J. Simpson wore civilian clothes to his trial, so perhaps there is some truth to this.

The privilege of "street dress" remains something that more inmates look forward to when they leave the gates.

The denial of civilian clothes and the strict limitations on possessions speak of the underlying theories behind the Victorian prisons. Prisons don’t just deny people physical liberty; they also subject people to rules and regulations. (E.g. California prison rules permit makeup for women, but only "natural" makeup and there are rules on possessions and jewelry.) The privilege of "street dress" remains something that more inmates look forward to when they leave the gates. The first thing someone does when he leaves prison is change into clothes.

Like all institutional styles, prison jumpsuits and colors have inspired costume and fashion designers for decades, alongside the adoption by many of street style, also inspired by prison wear—those low-rider pants, for example, came into vogue in prison where men aren’t allowed to wear belts. Given the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, perhaps some will opt to wear prison garb voluntarily, forcing prisons to ask the age-old question of all designers: "What next?"

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