By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Lila Quander.
Two weeks ago the story broke that Michigan Sheriff William Federspiel of Saginaw County ordered a change in uniform for inmates at his jail because Orange Is the New Black is popularizing orange jumpsuits. Federspiel told the US media that he’s concerned guards and civilians alike won’t be able to determine who is an inmate and who is simply in vogue.
Despite the recent pop-culture cross-over, the garment as a fad and its use in prisons have vastly disparate evolutions.
Fashion jumpsuits first became popular in the ’60s as Elvis Presley’s iconic stage outfit. In the ‘70s, high fashion capitalized on the design by incorporating elaborate patterns and rhinestone details, while the more provincial “hippies” took to all-natural “leisure suits.” The trend faded, but 2011 saw designers return their focus to the silhouette, the exploration of which the jumpsuit intrinsically lends itself.
Ease of use and wearability strongly factored into the renewed public interest, and by January 2014, Wanelo, a popular online community of world shopping, reported users searching for jumpsuits about 7,400 times per month.
And yes, many of the styles available are orange.
In prison, however, the jumpsuit is far from a symbol of swank.
Dr. Robert Morgan is a Psychology Professor at Texas Tech University, where he serves as Director of the Forensic Doc Science Institute. He maintains a part time private practice in Forensic Psychology, and has a research background in corrections with a particular emphasis on evaluating and developing different programs for offenders.
“Once the inmate enters the institution,” Dr. Morgan tells BTR, “and is stripped of their regular clothes, and they put on a jumpsuit that matches all the other inmates in that facility, it’s a stripping of their personal freedoms and personal choice in and of itself.”
The original black and white pinstriped uniform was commonly used in the US during the 19th century, perhaps because, according to historians, the pattern was associated with disruptions of order when it was first introduced in medieval times. As the Old Testament states, “one shall not wear a garment made of two,” and the old French translation of “barre” was not only “stripe” but also “illegitimacy.”
The patterned uniform was abandoned in 1904 in favor of a solid one because the stripes had become a badge of shame that irritated and humiliated prisoners. Now, the uniform is predominantly white, blue, or orange, kept simple to be as cost effective as possible, since most prisons are perpetually low-funded.
After it was no longer used as uniform, the black and white pinstripe became a form of prison discipline. The New Jersey Tribune reported Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona makes his inmates wear the stripes (along with pink underpants) as punishment for misbehavior, and in 2013, Justice secretary Chris Grayling pushed for a reform requiring all inmates to done the stripes in jail for the first two weeks of their sentence, to “harden” their experience.
Federspiel’s decision appears absent of such malintent, but begs the question–will this atavism negatively impact the psychology of inmates?
“I’ve never seen any research on this,” says Morgan, “but I think in general it doesn’t really matter what color someone has for their attire at their facility. The bottom line is, your freedom of choice is gone, and whatever color it is is irrelevant.”
But research has shown prisoners respond better to authority when permitted to wear their own clothing. Freddy Medina, who served time at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York state, tells BTR he’s divided on the issue.
“From my experience, when someone is incarcerated they take everything away from you, your freedom… everything,” he says. “So by wearing your street clothes, that gives you a sense of what was normal in your life and reminds you of what you can maybe go back to. It gives you something to work towards.”
At the same time Medina recognizes that when someone is in prison it’s because they’ve committed a crime, and that behavior needs to be corrected; so he can see where the loss of personal clothing is appropriate. He also points out that jealousy over belongings between inmates can sometimes incite violence.
He recounts that when he was at Clinton he had brand name shower slippers. Another inmate stole them and Medina responded by “trying to talk it out, failing, hitting him, and taking them back.” Afterwards, he threw out the slippers in front of everybody, to prove it wasn’t about them so much as it was about respect.
“That,” he admits, “is the watered down version.”
Ultimately Medina and Morgan agree that uniforms, and especially the color or design of them, don’t make much a difference to inmate psyche. More importantly, a uniform does nothing to helping them correct their behavior.
“The real problem is the jails in New York do not correct people, they make people worse,” Medina says, shaking his head. “They don’t get the tools to survive in society and most become repeat offenders.”
Perhaps now that it has helped to revitalize a fashion trend, OITNB will set an example for reform that is actually beneficial.