Prison uniform

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

A prison uniform is the most common term for the outward appearance imposed on individuals incarcerated in a prison, jail or a similar facility of detention or imprisonment by constraint. Usually a prison uniform consists of a specially designed garment to be worn unitarily instead of individual civilian clothes.

A prison uniform most notably serves the purpose to make prisoners readily identifiable and to prevent risks through concealed objects and of imponderable injuries that can evolve by allowing undesignated clothing objects. Besides the practical objectives of visually tagging individuals as prisoners the state of wearing a prison uniform naturally serves as an element of humiliation for the detained person, as unlike one's private clothes it is worn involuntarily, mostly reluctant and is often perceived as stigmatizing. It is also an incisive invasion into the autonomy of decision to regulate and standardize a person's outward appearance, which leads to a loss of individuality to a certain extent and can have an injurious impact on the inmate's self-esteem and self-perception. It is therefore usually perceived as an element of punishment and a specific badge of shame by an individual forcibly wearing a prison uniform. The level of humiliation felt by the prisoner is however in large part determined by the characteristic and design of the uniform.

Making some type of prison uniform compulsory for inmates has grown into common practice in most countries of today. Some correctional facilities may however not utilize designated uniform garments, but prescribe a particular dress code, such as prohibiting certain items of clothing. In this regard mainly footwear is disallowed within penal institutions of various countries to achieve or complement a denoting unified appearance of prison inmates, at this using the sociocultural subtext of bare feet (see chapter Early prison uniforms for historical derivation).[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Early prison uniforms[edit]

Depiction of uniformly barefooted prisoners visually contrasting the regularly shod visitors. Painting by Cornelis de Wael; To Visit the Imprisoned c. 1640

Seizing the footwear of a detained person and constraining the individual into remaining barefoot was one of the first conventional methods in most civilizations to mark and identify prisoners before modern uniform garments have been invented for this purpose. As a shod appearance has been the societal standard since early antiquity and going unshod has come to be socially proscribed especially around the Middle Ages, this form of appearance was highly uncommon. Therefore bare feet were an obvious and significant visual attribute to manifest the absence of personal freedom and also an expedient means of tagging individuals as judicial captives. Using a similar assessment only ancient and later on also contemporary slaves had to remain unshod under duress while ordinary citizens avoided this form of appearance accordingly, so this detail could be used for prisoners as well.

As a practical objective physical resistance or escape were effectively impeded. Also through the withheld protection of the feet different obstacles in everyday situations were set up, hereby the forcibly barefoot individual was naturally restrained to a certain degree, further complementing the restrictive effect of additional physical restraints.

The method of withholding footwear from prisoners and keeping them barefoot is still practiced in several countries to this day, however usually as an integral part of specific prisoner's garments rather than as a standalone feature.


Dutch Jews wearing vertically striped uniforms at the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II.

During the Nazi period of Germany, interned people in the concentration camp system were often made to wear prisoner's uniforms.

In today's Germany, inmates may wear regular civilian clothing in some prisons. In other prisons prison uniforms are compulsory. If a prisoner cannot afford to have his own clothing cleaned and/or replaced, they may be issued with a prison uniform. There are also facilities with no prison uniforms.[12][13]

United Kingdom[edit]

Convict era[edit]

In the United Kingdom, prison uniforms formerly consisted of a white jacket, trousers and pillbox hat, all stamped with the broad arrow to denote crown property.

The idea of covering the uniforms of Penal Servitude prisoners with the broad arrow was first introduced by Sir Edmund Du Cane in the 1870s after his appointment as Chairman of Convict Directors and Surveyor-General of prisons. Du Cane considered the broad arrow to be a hindrance to escape and also a mark of shame. It was certainly unpopular with the convicts. “All over the whole clothing were hideous black impressions of the Broad Arrow”, wrote one prisoner.[14] Another considered the “hideous dress” to be “the most extraordinary garb I had ever seen outside a pantomime”.[15] Men sent to public-works prisons were issued with boots. One prisoner, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, left this description: “Fully fourteen pounds in weight. I put them on and the weight of them served to fasten me to the ground. It was not that alone, but the sight of the impression they left on the gutter as you looked at the footprints of those who walked before you, struck terror to your heart. There was the felon’s brand of the ‘broad arrow’ impressed on the soil by every footstep…the nails in the soles of your boots and shoes were hammered in an arrow shape, so that whatever ground you trod you left traces that Government property had travelled over it.”[16] The broad arrow markings were used until 1922.[17]

Modern era[edit]

Currently prisoners are clothed in a standard issue prison uniform, except for dangerous criminals, who wear yellow and green boiler suits. Remanded prisoners in the UK may wear their own clothing.[citation needed]

United States of America[edit]

Prisoners in Utah c.1885 wearing horizontally striped prison uniforms.

Prison uniforms in the United States often consist of a distinctive orange or yellow jumpsuit or two piece surgical scrub set to make escape more difficult, as it is difficult for an escaped inmate to avoid recognition and recapture in such a distinctive attire. Originally a horizontal white and black bee-striped uniform and hat was used.

Striped prison uniforms commonly used in the 19th century were abolished in the United States early in the 20th century because their continued use as a badge of shame was considered undesirable.[18] Through most of the twentieth century attitudes were different towards philosophies of rehabilitation. Fair treatment of prisoners and a growing number of non-violent, working class offenders prompted such a change in attitudes, and clothing and conditions changed to serve the concept of rehabilitation rather than punishment. As a result, work clothes were introduced, perhaps because of the concept of honest labor helping to turn an inmate into an honest citizen. Blue jeans and light blue denim or chambray work shirts became the norm, a tradition still followed in some state prison systems today. In federal prisons, this concept was introduced in the form of khaki pants and shirts, still in use.

Detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in orange scrubs

Only within the last twenty years have jumpsuits and scrubs become popular, and mostly out of economic issues. In many cases, prison uniforms usually consist of clothing better suited to the comfort and durability required for long term inmates, and these new uniforms are thus used mostly in local jails for short term inmates and offenders awaiting trial or transportation to a more permanent facility.

A recent trend to use uniforms as a measure of punishment has become increasingly popular. Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona resorts to stripes and harsh conditions for his inmates, including pink underpants for his male charges. Striped uniforms in general have made a huge comeback into the jail and prison system, for a variety of reasons, such as mistaking jumpsuit-clad workers or scrub-clad nurses/doctors as inmates. False reporting of people in similar clothing has become a problem in some counties, and so many have switched back to using striped uniforms (Mostly Orange and White) due to the unambiguous nature of these garments being associated with inmates.

In July 2014, because the popular television program Orange Is the New Black was making the orange jumpsuits in his prison fashionable, Saginaw County, Michigan Sheriff William Federspiel decided to replace them with traditional black-and-white-striped uniforms.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Andrew Meldrum. "Andrew Meldrum: My night in Mugabe's stinking jail". the Guardian. 
  2. ^ "Zimbabwe's jails: full of human kindness?". GlobalPost. 
  3. ^ "Open Minds, Closed Doors: Prison Education in Uganda". DI News. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "American Pastor Saeed Facing "Hell on Earth" in Iran's Evin Prison - American Center for Law and Justice". American Center for Law and Justice. 
  6. ^ "Prison conditions in Pakistan". YouTube. 31 December 1969. 
  7. ^ "How One Woman Helped Reform a Notorious Indian Prison". YouTube. 31 December 1969. 
  8. ^ " Congo-Kinshasa: Meet 'Mr Human Rights'". 
  9. ^ "I Live Here -- Introducing the Boys of Kachere Juvenile Prison - Erica Solomon". The Huffington Post. 
  10. ^ "World's Toughest Prisons". The Voice of Russia's Global Discussion. 
  11. ^ "IRIN Africa - COTE D'IVOIRE: When a sentence to jail can be a sentence to death - Cote d'Ivoire - Droits de l'homme". IRINnews. 
  12. ^ Lippische Landes-Zeitung. "Auch hinter Gittern wird geträumt". Kultur. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Five Years Penal Servitude by One-who-has-endured-it (1877)
  15. ^ My Prison Life (1901), Jabez Spencer Balfour
  16. ^ Irish Rebels in English Prisons (1882), Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa
  17. ^ "Alexander Paterson, youth work and prison reform",, 2004
  18. ^ Pratt, John Clark (2002). Punishment and civilization: penal tolerance and intolerance in modern society. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage. p. 76. ISBN 0-7619-4753-1. The distinctive prison stripes were abolished in 1904. …stripes had come to be looked upon as a badge of shame and were a constant humiliation and irritant to many prisoners' (Report of the New York (State) Prison Department, 1904: 22) 
  19. ^ "Black-and-white stripes are the new orange at Michigan jail". NY Daily News.