Prison uniform

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Striped prison uniform, contemporary design as used in the United States and other countries
Inmates outfitted in common present-day prison uniforms (gray-white), US
Prison uniforms, India (museum exhibit)

A prison uniform is the unified outward appearance of detainees in a situation of imprisonment. It is typically adapted under constraint.

Usually a prison uniform consists of a visually distinct garment, which must be worn by an incarcerated person instead of his or her individual civilian clothes. In most cases it is purposefully designed to establish a visual contrast to the outward appearance of prison officers and set up a clear distinction from civil clothing.

A prison uniform serves the purpose to make prisoners instantly identifiable, to limit risks through concealed objects and to prevent injuries through undesignated clothing objects. It can also spoil attempts of escape as prison uniforms typically use a design and color scheme that is easily noticed and identified even at a greater distance.

A conception for a prison uniform can further purposefully exclude items of otherwise standard clothing as a discrete identifier. This often includes a restriction in terms of footwear, hereby forcing prisoners to remain barefoot as a part of their dress code.[1][2]

The state of wearing a prison uniform in many cases provokes a distressful psychological response from the detained person, as unlike civilian clothes it is worn involuntarily, typically reluctant and is often perceived as stigmatizing. The imperative regulation of a person's outward appearance is typically perceived as a steep invasion into the autonomy of decision. As a consequence the loss of individuality particularly caused by having to wear a prison uniform can have a detrimental effect to a person's self-perception and self-esteem. Therefore, a prison uniform is often perceived as an implicit element of punishment and a stigma, while the level of psychological distress and humiliation caused by the garment is in large part determined by its characteristic and overall design.

However, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners first adopted in 1955 and amended in 2015 as "Mandela Rules" prohibit degrading or humiliating clothing, requiring in Rule 19 that:

  1. Every prisoner who is not allowed to wear his or her own clothing shall be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable for the climate and adequate to keep him or her good health. Such clothing shall in no manner be degrading or humiliating.
  2. All clothing shall be clean and kept in proper condition. Underclothing shall be changed and washed as often as necessary for the maintenance of hygiene.
  3. In exceptional circumstances, whenever a prisoner is removed outside the prison for an authorized purpose, he or she shall be allowed to wear his or her own clothing or other inconspicuous clothing.[3]

Using some manifestation of a prison uniform for incarcerated individuals has become the standard within the penal system of most countries. Some facilities may however not issue designated uniform garments to the inmates as such. Primarily depending on the economical conditions a unified dress code is sometimes specified in facilities of different countries, which typically includes confiscating and withholding certain items of otherwise standard clothing. This way the required distinctive appearance to tell inmates apart from regular civilians is obtained in a similar way to uniform garments. This commonly occurs for financial reasons, as this option is naturally free of cost.

In this regard especially wearing shoes is often disallowed within penal institutions of various countries, primarily exploiting the socially uncommon semblance of a fully shoeless person, which provides for a sufficiently noticeable visual appearance in most situations. This condition also employs the sociocultural connotation of this attribute as keeping individuals barefoot has served as an indicator for their absence of personal freedom in large parts of history (see subchapter Early prison uniforms and (Barefoot) Imprisonment and slavery for historic background).[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

Early prison uniforms[edit]

Prisoners in bare feet next to shod visitors. Cornelis de Wael; Italy c. 1640
Female prisoner seated in courtroom, chained and barefooted; Wales 19th century (museum exhibit)
British prison uniform, 19th century
Incarerated woman, bare feet exposed; Friedrich Gustav Schlick, Germany 1836

Before specific uniform garments came into use a common method to visually mark and identify prisoners consisted in primarily removing the shoes and keeping them barefoot during imprisonment.

As wearing shoes has long been the usual form of appearance, and going unshod has become inadequate and socially unaccepted, the semblance of bare feet was avoided by society and rarely seen. The disreputable assessment of displaying bare feet is connected to the tendency for slaves forced to remain shoeless to display their inferior societal rank while regular citizens usually refrained from this form of appearance and resorted to footwear befitting their social status. As a practical objective the omitted protection of the feet naturally implicated different environmental obstacles for the detained individuals, which restricted their freedom of action compared to shod individuals, attempts of prison escape were hereby made more difficult. Bare feet also complemented the force of physical restraints which were often applied in the form of shackles or similar devices. Prisoners were rendered more vulnerable to outside influences when they had to remain barefoot, therefore acts of physical resistance were frustrated or more easily overcome as well. As the results were achieved with little effort, this method was common practice to display the state of captivity in most civilizations of the past.

The method of keeping prisoners uniformly barefoot is common practice in several countries to this day, mostly complementing specific prisoner's garments but also as a standalone routine.

The psychological effect of having to remain barefoot as part of a prisoner's dress code is comparable to the effect of specific prison garments, as it is an uncommon state in any civil society just as wearing salient uniform clothing and carries a similar denotive connotation. This situation can however have an additional unsettling effect on a detained person as the heightened vulnerability of shoeless feet typically provokes feelings of insecurity. Hereby a prisoner often perceives the reluctant and unaccustomed visual exposure of his or her bare feet as a palpable element of degradation and punishment in itself. Being forced to remain barefoot for a prison uniform is often experienced as intimidating and oppressive, which is an effect also used to further emphasize the overseers' command and authority over the prisoners.[15]

During the Victorian era when prison sentences of prolonged durance were implemented in the judicial system of several countries, actual garments were conceived to be worn specifically by prison inmates, which developed to the various types of prison uniforms presently in use.[16]

Prison uniform by nation[edit]


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.[17][18]

United Kingdom[edit]

19th century[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.[19] Another considered the “hideous dress” to be “the most extraordinary garb I had ever seen outside a pantomime”.[20] 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.”[21] The broad arrow markings were used until 1922.[22]

21st century[edit]

Currently prisoners are clothed in a standard issue prison uniform, which consists of a blue t-shirt, a grey jumper (sweater), and grey soft trousers (jogging bottoms/pants). All male prisoners must wear the uniform during the first two weeks of their sentence,[23] and are then entitled to wear some of their own clothes if they choose to after obtaining a higher enhanced reward level, for doing things such as performing their prison chores and keeping good behavior, etc. Although this is except for dangerous criminals, usually those held in Category A maximum security prisons, who are assessed as having a high escape attempt risk, they are required to wear yellow and green boiler suits with the words 'HM PRISON' ('HM' standing for His/Her Majesty) printed on the back in black capital lettering on a permanent basis whilst in custody, they are known as an "Escape list suit". They are also handcuffed and sometimes fitted with a leather belly chain when moved outside of prison to places such as court buildings. Remanded prisoners in the UK who have not yet been sentenced may wear their own clothing.[24] Prisoners in Category D open prisons can also wear their own clothing to prepare them for their eventual release, but not anything that resembles a prison officers uniform. All non-prison issue personal clothing sent in must be approved before it can be used by prisoners.

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 jumpsuit with a white T-shirt underneath 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 began to be abolished in parts of the United States early in the 20th century because their continued use as a badge of shame was considered undesirable.[25]

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.

Prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in orange jumpsuits

At the end of the 20th century orange jumpsuits and white T-Shirts became commonplace, mostly for cost issues. In many cases, prison uniforms are better suited to the comfort and durability required for long term inmates, and these new uniforms are used mostly in local jails for short term inmates and offenders awaiting trial or transportation to a more permanent facility. Striped uniforms in general have made a significant comeback into the jail and prison system for a variety of reasons, such as mistaking jumpsuit-clad workers as inmates. False reporting of people in similar clothing has become a problem in some counties, 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 of his prison fashionable, Saginaw County, Michigan Sheriff William Federspiel decided to replace them with traditional black-and-white-striped uniforms.[26]

Color designations[edit]

Inmate in striped uniform and restraints

Different color designations are commonly used to indicate the status of the inmate. The uniforms may be in plain colors or horizontally striped.

In some cases the following color code is used

  • Dark red: supermax, or "worst of the worst"
  • Red: high-risk
  • Khaki or Yellow: low-risk
  • White: segregation unit or in specific cases, death row inmates
  • Green or blue: low-risk inmates on work detail (e.g. kitchen, cleaning, laundry, mail, or other tasks)
  • Orange: unspecific, commonly used for any status in some prisons
  • Black/Orange and White stripes: unspecific, commonly used for any status in some prisons
  • Pink: used for special punishment in some prisons

Other countries[edit]

In Finland, inmates wear prison uniforms, unless they receive a special permission to use some of their own for sports training. Prison uniforms are red and grey.[27]

In South Korea prison uniforms are also compulsory, often using a khaki color scheme.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saidel, Rochelle G. The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Retrieved March 26, 2013.
  2. ^ "Arbeitserziehungslager Fehrbellin:Zwangsarbeiterinnen im Straflager der Gestapo" (pdf).
  3. ^ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Rule 19
  4. ^ Andrew Meldrum. "Andrew Meldrum: My night in Mugabe's stinking jail". the Guardian.
  5. ^ "Zimbabwe's jails: full of human kindness?". GlobalPost.
  6. ^ "Open Minds, Closed Doors: Prison Education in Uganda". DI News. Archived from the original on 2014-11-29. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-10-07. Retrieved 2014-09-15. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ "American Pastor Saeed Facing "Hell on Earth" in Iran's Evin Prison". American Center for Law and Justice.
  9. ^ "Prison conditions in Pakistan". YouTube. 31 December 1969.
  10. ^ "How One Woman Helped Reform a Notorious Indian Prison". YouTube. 31 December 1969.
  11. ^ "Congo-Kinshasa: Meet 'Mr Human Rights'".
  12. ^ Erica Solomon. "I Live Here – Introducing the Boys of Kachere Juvenile Prison". The Huffington Post.
  13. ^ "World's Toughest Prisons". The Voice of Russia's Global Discussion. Archived from the original on 2014-10-06. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  14. ^ "Cote d'Ivoire: When a sentence to jail can be a sentence to death". IRINnews.
  15. ^ "Long hours in a Harare jail". BBC News. June 1, 2002. Retrieved October 6, 2014.
  16. ^ [1] in „Victorian crime and punishment“; 14.04.2015.
  17. ^ Lippische Landes-Zeitung. "Auch hinter Gittern wird geträumt". Kultur.
  18. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-01-06. Retrieved 2012-12-01. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ Five Years Penal Servitude by One-who-has-endured-it (1877)
  20. ^ My Prison Life (1901), Jabez Spencer Balfour
  21. ^ Irish Rebels in English Prisons (1882), Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa
  22. ^ "Alexander Paterson, youth work and prison reform",, 2004
  23. ^ Alan Travis (30 April 2013). "Prison perks: inmates must wear uniforms as Grayling cracks down". Guardian. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
  24. ^
  25. ^ 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)
  26. ^ "Black-and-white stripes are the new orange at Michigan jail". NY Daily News.
  27. ^
  28. ^