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Cellblock chic
 As in the world outside, trends come and go at the nation's jails. The newest look in uniforms is the rebirth of an old one: black and white stripes.

photo
[Times file]
Pasco County prison trusties working outside the jail now wear striped uniforms so they are easily recognizable in public.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


photo
[Photo: Florida Department of State]
Two Florida inmates walk through the doors at Raiford Prison in 1935. Back then, prisoners got to wear belts. Guards no longer issue belts because they fear inmates might try to hang themselves. Most prison-issue pants have elastic waists. Florida abandoned striped inmate uniforms soon after this photo was taken.
In early June, some inmates at the Pasco County Jail were ordered to hand in their orange cotton T-shirts and pants. The "pumpkins" prisoners had worn for decades were being replaced.

By zebras.

Now, trusties have to wear black and white stripes when they work outside the jail.

The outfits are retro and trendy. They're the latest fad in prison fashion.

Inmates say their new duds make them look like the Hamburglar.

"Terrible," one said of the ensemble. "They make us look like clowns," another complained. Humiliation is exactly the point. In Pasco and beyond, Americans' frustration with crime is showing in three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, in tougher sentences, in jam-packed prisons -- and on the backs of prisoners.

"You can trace the punitive mood of a nation by the uniforms it makes its inmates wear," Jack Levin said from Boston. Levin is a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.

"Right now, Americans are in a very punitive mood," he said. "Prison wardens and sheriffs around the country are doing some sadistic things."

Clothes make the man . . . miserable

Through the ages, in prisons around the world, clothes have been part of the punishment.

photo
[Times file]
Valessa Robinson is led in orange scrubs to a Hillsborough County Sheriff's van after she was sentenced last year for her part in the murder of her mother, Vicki Robinson.

In the 1700s, convicts on Australian chain gangs had to wear wool jackets with yellow and black diamond patterns: court jesters' costumes. During the 1820s, Pennsylvania prisoners had to wear dark hoods when they left their solitary cells so no one would have to see their faces.

"Inmates' uniforms have almost always been about breaking them down, trying to stomp out their individuality," said Kara Gotsch, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "Uniforms are another way for institutions to emphasize they have control over the inmates."

Stripes came into vogue in the early 19th century. The black and white bands were supposed to symbolize cell bars -- a scarlet letter for convicts. Just after the Civil War, all the inmates were wearing them.

But by the early 1900s, people were thinking differently about prisons and punishment. In 1904, at the height of the Progressive era, New York's superintendent of prisons stopped making his inmates wear stripes, calling such suits a "badge of disgrace." Federal prisoners didn't wear stripes after 1914. Florida inmates wore striped pants through the mid 1930s.

During the Depression, hordes of people wound up in prison for petty crimes, vagrancy and debt. "Everyone was poor. That was a great equalizer," Levin said. "The idea of who was a criminal changed." Sheriffs started issuing work shirts and jeans. Some lockups let inmates wear their own clothes because the jails couldn't afford uniforms.

Denim gave way to khaki in the 1940s, then to solid-color cotton scrubs. Road crews started wearing orange jumpsuits so they'd be easy to spot.

In the '80s, the drug trade, easier access to guns and gang activity caused crime rates to climb. By the early '90s, the public was clamoring for tougher laws, better enforcement, fewer amenities in jails.

So across the country, sheriffs canceled inmates' basketball games and weight training and visiting hours. Some took away cigarettes, magazines and televisions.

Some brought back chain gangs and work camps -- and stripes.

Stooges?

photo
[Photo: Florida Department of State]
Inmates at Raiford Prison in Florida do callisthenics in the prison yard around 1930. Their shirts were different, but they all wore striped pants.

Seven years ago, Robinson Textiles in Los Angeles didn't carry striped inmate uniforms. Robinson is one of the largest private manufacturers of prison uniforms in the country. "No one even asked about stripes," spokeswoman Pam Hurt said.

In 1995, a Southern sheriff called to order striped scrubs for his inmates. "We all looked at each other and said, "There's no way those guys are going to go back to black and white,' " Hurt said. "But after we started making them, word got out. Pretty soon, calls started coming in."

At least one-fourth of inmate outfits sold today have stripes, said Diane Mason, spokeswoman for Bob Barker Co., a prison uniform supplier in North Carolina.

Solid scrubs sell for $12 a set at Bob Barker. Striped sets cost $1 more. The stripes -- 3 inches wide -- also come in colors: red, green, orange and blue. Black and white is, by far, the best seller.

Inmates are wearing zebras from Maine to Mississippi, in Indiana and Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska and, of course, Florida. Leon County's inmates have been wearing stripes around Tallahassee for five years.

"These are not costumes. They're uniforms," said Leon County sheriff's Capt. John Schmidt. "We do it because these prisoners are working outside the jail and we want them to be readily recognized."

Some folks snicker when they see the inmates' new outfits. Others cheer, jeer or honk. Most people have never seen anyone imprisoned in black and white stripes, except in Three Stooges movies.

Pink underpants

Zebra suits are only part of the recent movement to shame inmates. Outside Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio makes prisoners spray-paint "ESCAPEE" on the insides of their shirts, so they won't try to turn them inside out and hide the stripes. Other jailers outlaw makeup or force female prisoners to wear dresses.

Arpaio and the sheriff in Buffalo, N.Y., even issue pink underpants to male inmates.

"They say it's to save money, so prisoners will provide their own underwear," said Levin, the sociology professor. "But it's all about humiliation."

Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jails magazine, sees no purpose in that.

"It's not good management to demean prisoners," he said. "They only take it out on the guards."

Most prisoners already feel at odds with society: rejected, angry, even cheated, Levin said. Psychologically abusing them -- making them wear stripes and pink underpants -- upsets them even more.

So what, tough sheriffs ask. So what if prisoners feel bad? Isn't that what jail is all about?

Warren Hege, sheriff of Davidson County, in rural central North Carolina, won't let inmates make telephone calls, watch television, smoke or drink coffee.

"Should it be the taxpayers' responsibility to rehabilitate you?" he asked during a February television interview. "Just put you in prison and forget about you."

Most of the stripes have resurfaced in county jails run by elected sheriffs. Some say the uniforms are political ploys. Free billboards for the incumbent.

Almost all state and federal prisoners still wear solid-color scrubs.

According to the American Jails Association, more than 150,000 people are incarcerated in federal prisons; 1-million are in state prisons; at least a half-million more are in county jails.

About one in every 150 Americans is behind bars.

"Someday, most of those inmates will be back on the streets," Levin said. "The more separated they feel they have become from the rest of us, the more humiliated they've been, the harder it will be for them to integrate back into the community. Then, they become more of a threat to everyone."

The GQ inmate

It might seem strange that convicts care about clothes.

When you're facing 5 to 10, cleaning roadsides in the Florida heat, with a rifle-toting deputy watching you, what does it matter whether you're sporting stripes or solids?

"Even in jail, some people have concerns about their personal appearance," said Col. David Parrish. He has been supervising the Hillsborough County Jail for 20 years. Last week, he was overseeing 3,500 prisoners.

"They don't like the liquid soap we issue. They want to buy their own shampoo or cream rinse."

And some want to stand out, even in standard-issue outfits. Clothes are among the most popular prison contraband. So many fights broke out over Air Jordans that Florida state prisons ban name-brand sneakers.

"Inmates are always modifying their uniforms in one way or another. Anything to be distinctive," Parrish said. "Roll up one pants leg, leave another down: That's a gang sign. We've had prisoners make jewelry or decorations, necklaces from folding foil gum wrappers. I've seen some real masterpieces."

In the Florida state prisons, male inmates can't wear beards, moustaches or flared sideburns. Female inmates are allowed a few more liberties. They can buy bobby pins, hair rollers, earrings, eye shadow, mascara, eyebrow pencil, even Department of Corrections-approved lipstick in the canteen.

Pregnant prisoners, of course, get special dresses. But they don't come in stripes. Yet.

Before Arpaio issued the first zebra suits in Arizona, some female inmates asked for vertical stripes, which are more slimming. Arpaio refused. He's not about to make inmates look better.

An extreme example of jailhouse vanity is recorded in a 1991 self-help column printed in the St. Petersburg Times. A New York convict wrote fashion adviser Lois Fenton, asking for advice.

"We are required to wear dark green pants to the mess and visiting room. (Our only other choices are) the circus colors, red, yellow, white; the Christmas colors, red and green; and the Easter colors, yellow, pink, purple," the prisoner wrote. "In this machismo milieu" -- yes, he really used that word -- "pink and purple are eliminated as too feminine . . . As a conservative, well-behaved (also innocent) convict, I have mainly stuck to wearing contrasting shades of green for shirts and sweaters. . . . Any suggestions?"

The fashion guru suggested layering. "For example, with your deep green pants, by combining a beige sweater over a white (or cream-color) dress shirt, you create a contrast at the neck."

Inside fashion moves outside

Colors have long been used to classify inmates. In Pinellas County, inmates in maximum security wear blue; pretrial felony defendants wear green; non-sentenced inmates charged with misdemeanors wear light blue; trusties wear red shirts and blue pants; and other prisoners wear gray. In state and federal prisons, colors can change according to the offense.

Florida's death row residents wear orange. Some sheriffs in other states make sexual offenders wear hot pink uniforms. In Ireland, political prisoners wear their own color so other criminals can identify -- and harass -- them.

Even the form of clothing can increase its punitive function. One warden, fed up with inmates flashing guards, traded in the prisoners' two-piece uniforms for jumpsuits.

Lately, prison wear is becoming popular on the outside. It's already started to influence high school fashion.

The whole baggy-pants, let-your-waistline-hang-down-to-your-crotch fad started in prison, said Los Angeles Times writer John L. Mitchell. California gang members began letting their pants droop to emulate their brothers behind bars, Mitchell wrote in 1992. Inmates' pants ride low, he said, because prisoners never wear belts. (It's not a fashion statement, just jailers trying to avoid hangings.)

Clothes made behind bars also are increasingly popular on the outside.

Oregon inmates sew denim jackets, coats, shirts and jeans and sell them to the public. The state-run company, Prison Blues, started in 1997 as a way for prisoners to pay for their own incarceration. Thousands of people in Asia, Italy, Germany and, especially, the United States are buying attire made by inmates.

Something about prison life captivates the public. Tourists flock to the cold, stone halls of Alcatraz. They take bus trips to San Quentin and to Folsom Prison -- because Johnny Cash made it famous.

They buy replicas of leg irons and shackles and, yes, striped suits.

To Russia, with stripes

photo
[Photo: Pride Enterprises]
Distributors not only sell uniforms with black stripes; they also come in green.
In Hillsborough County, inmates haven't worn black and white in at least 100 years. They wear orange shirts and orange pants. When trusties work outside the jail, they wear half dark blue, half orange.

Parrish, the Tampa jailer, said stripes don't really help deter crime.

"No one's going to say,"Hey, if I steal that car here in Hillsborough, I won't have to wear those black and white uniforms. But if I cross that line and steal one in Pasco, they'll make me wear stripes.' "

Maybe stripes will fade again, like so many retro fashions. Maybe those Hamburglar costumes will wind up hanging in some Halloween shop, or a museum.

For now, Pasco prisoners can be grateful they're not in Russia.

At Vladmir Prison, inmates don't get uniforms.

They have to paint black stripes on their own clothes.

- St. Petersburg Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

What they're wearing

photo
[Times file]
Strict guidelines dictate what federal and state prisoners wear. But sheriffs get to choose uniforms for their own jails. In some jails, inmates' uniforms come in three or four different colors.

In Pinellas County, for example, prisoners who have not yet been sentenced wear orange scrubs; maximum security inmates wear dark green; and kitchen workers wear white.

Prisoners' uniforms vary greatly around the Tampa Bay area.

  • Federal prisoners: Tan button-up shirts; tan pants.
  • Florida state prisoners: Blue v-neck shirts; blue pants.
  • Florida death row prisoners: Orange v-neck shirts; orange pants.
  • Pinellas County prisoners: Orange, green, blue or gray v-neck shirts and pants.
  • Pinellas prisoners working outside jail: Orange v-neck shirts; orange pants.
  • Pasco County prisoners: Orange, blue, red or white v-neck shirts and pants.
  • Pasco prisoners working outside jail: Black and white striped shirts and pants.
  • Hillsborough County prisoners: Orange v-neck shirts; orange pants.
  • Hillsborough prisoners working outside jail: Orange and blue two-tone (not striped) shirts and pants.
  • Hernando County prisoners: Khaki v-neck shirts; khaki pants.
  • Hernando prisoners working outside jail: Red T-shirts; brown work pants.
  • Citrus County prisoners, male: Orange v-neck shirts; orange pants.
  • Citrus County prisoners, female: Red v-neck shirts; red pants.
  • Citrus prisoners working outside jail: Blue v-neck shirts; blue pants.

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