Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


In 2009, I attended the European Prison Health Conference in Madrid, Spain.  At the end of the event, conference participants were invited to tour a medium-security male prison located in the outskirts of the city. The tour took us through the medical clinic, the education classroom, the hallways with the cells and ended in the recreation area.  This was an interior courtyard.  There were about 30 inmates mingling in the space, talking, smoking cigarettes.  

On one side of the courtyard was a door leading to a sitting room with couches and chairs.  Just next to this door was a cafe that served coffee and snack cakes, identical to the typical cafeteria that you can find on any Spanish street corner.  On the wall adjacent to the lounge and cafe were double doors leading into the cafeteria.  This room included a serving line, just inside the door, about 6 long tables and, on the far side of the room, cubbies where inmates could store their plates, bowls, cups and utensils.

The whole visit was extraordinary.  The facility was simultaneously very similar and very different to the CT prisons that I have seen.  For me, the most remarkable space was the recreation and dining areas.  First of all, that each prisoner had his own dining set, including a real fork, knife and spoon.  In CT, prisoners eat off of trays with plastic sporks.  Sitting up in the cubbies, washed and dried, it was clear that each mismatched set was unique.  Do they buy these items from a prison store, bring them from home?  Second, to see people smoking inside prison seemed very 1970s.  Finally, everybody was wearing their own "regular" street clothes - - pants, shirts, sweaters of all colors, shapes and sizes - there was no prison-issued uniform.  In CT, women wear a garnet T-shirt and elastic waist jeans.  Men wear tan scrubs, usually with a white T-shirt underneath.  Both men and women wear white sneakers or work boots and can have an grey sweatshirt.

What do we think about uniforms?  Convenient and neat or oppressive forms of identity theft?

This year, my children are attending a school in Spain that requires a uniform.  There is a formal outfit (pictured above) and an informal set (sweatpants, jacket and polo) for days when they have gym or field trips. All the clothes, including the pants and socks, are issued by the school and carry either the name of the school or the logo.  Their reaction to these outfits was, at first, unenthusiastic, to say the least.  However, I think that they will warm up to the concept over time.  After all, the uniforms look great, are comfortable and make life that much easier  No questions about what to wear in the morning, no worries about what you peers will think of your clothes.  

And who is to say that your personality can't shine through?  Some wear the pants a little big, the shirts a little tight.  Make up, hairstyle and accessories reflect personal style.  This is true both in school and in prison (although as I recall CT inmates can't wear jewelry).

Truth be told, don't we all wear some kind of uniform?  How free are we to "decide" what we want to wear when Madison Avenue is bombarding us with messages all day and night about what we can and cannot do.  My sister and I live 3,000 miles apart and somehow, without ever discussing it, ended up buying the same exact Land's End bathing suit this year.  In 7th grade, every girl at my daughter's class wore Uggs, blue jeans and North Face fleece jackets to school every day.  No joke.

So, uniform or no uniform?  What's the verdict?  Here, once again, the postmodern, qualitative research refrain rings true, "It depends."  Fantastic Spanish shoes with khaki pants and a red polo?  Can't argue with that.  Garnet t-shirt and blue jeans?  OK.  Green and white striped overalls worn by Mississippi prisoners?  Hmmm....not so sure.

In the end, what a uniform really does is identify the person wearing it as a member of a specific group.  See that girl with the white polo and the grey kilt?  She goes to Sacred Heart Academy.  See that guy with bright orange scrubs?  He is an inmate in the State of California.  This is what made the visit to the Spanish prison so remarkable.  Standing there in the yard with 30 prisoners and 15 conference visitors, I couldn't tell the "us" from the "them."  Was that guy with the grey sweater on the bus with me this morning?  If they dress like us, eat like us, drink a coffee after dinner and share a cigarette, like us, you can't help but be reminded that "they" are, in fact, "us."