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.
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.
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).
Early prison uniforms
At times 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 barefooted during imprisonment.
As wearing shoes has long been the usual form of appearance, and going unshod has become increasingly inadequate and socially unaccepted, the semblance of bare feet was explicitly avoided by the civil society and therefore rarely seen either in public or in private. 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 benefitting their social status. As a consequence shoes were a general insignia for free individuals while an unfree person such as a slave or prisoner could clearly be determined by being barefoot. The salient visual appearance of bare feet was an unmistakable feature to distinguish prisoners from free citizens in any situation. 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 considerably more difficult. Bare feet hereby also complemented the force of physical restraints which were often applied in the form of shackles or similar devices. Prisoners were rendered notably 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 practically effortlessly, this method was common practice to display the state of captivity and imprisonment 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 generally 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 typically reluctant and unaccustomed visual exposure of his or her bare feet as a palpable element of degradation and punishment in itself. Therefore 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.
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 eventually developed to the various types of prison uniforms presently in use.
Prison uniform by nation
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.
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. Another considered the “hideous dress” to be “the most extraordinary garb I had ever seen outside a pantomime”. 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.” The broad arrow markings were used until 1922.
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.
United States of America
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 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.
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.
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 significant 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, 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.
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
- Red: high-risk
- Orange: medium-risk
- Grey-beige or yellow: low-risk
- White: segregation unit or in specific cases death row
- Green or blue: low-risk inmates on work detail (usually kitchen, cleaning, laundry or similar)
- Black and white stripes: unspecific, commonly used for any status in some prisons
- Pink: used for special punishment in some prisons
In South Korea prison uniforms are also compulsory, often using a khaki color scheme.
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