Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Uniforms?, Part Two

Javier, October 2011.  Gotta love a man in uniform...
Towards the beginning of my blogging adventures, I wrote a piece about uniforms, raising questions about their advantages and disadvantages at school, in prison, in general.  So, I have got some more thoughts on the issue and Javier wanted his picture on the blog, so here goes....

When it comes to schools, my position on uniforms is YES.  Provided they are comfortable and gender neutral, I give my hearty endorsement.  These kids have so much personality that it shines through no matter what they are wearing. They still have their hair, their jewelry and, more importantly, their faces and their bodies.  I can pick my daughter out of a crowd of similarly dressed 14-year-old girls from a mile away.  She can still flip her hair and roll her eyes.  My son still bounces when he walks, even if he is wearing what all the other kids are wearing.  And the school uniform makes life so much easier.  Laundry is minimized because the kids wear the same one or two shirts all week.  No more piles of clothes around the bedroom.  No more early morning fashion decisions.  Life is complicated enough. Plus, as a woman of Puritan old Boston origin, I find it a relief to see kids in school fully dressed - no underwear or bra showing, no belly button, no butt crack.  Yeah!


When it comes to prison, I am still not sure but find that I am actually warming up to the idea.  Clearly, prison uniforms are not the same as school uniforms.  The former can carry a significant amount of stigma and may be uncomfortable or ill-fitting.  And when uniforms are all you've got - no chance to pick your own clothes on the weekend or after school - then they become a bit more oppressive.

In the Spanish prison where I have been volunteering, the women who are incarcerated wear their own clothes.  They are allowed to accessorize and cut their hair however they please and can have any type of piercing - ears, chin, nose, eyebrow, etc.  There also don't seem to be any restrictions related to make-up.  This type of system allows prisoners to wear what they like, what they find comfortable, provided that they have the money to purchase the clothes/hair accessories/piercings/make-up that they want or have someone on the outside who is willing to send these items to them.  This is where the grey sets in...

One of the realities of prison life is that many inmates have absolutely no contact with people on the outside.  No visits.  No phone calls.  No letters.  No money. Sometimes family and friends cut off communication.  Other times, it is the inmate herself who chooses to sever her ties.  Lack of connections to the outside can be a source of embarrassment. In the food interviews that I conducted, participants described how women who had no money coming in from the outside were often marginalized and looked upon with disdain.  Getting no commissary or a very small commissary bag weakens your status in the prison community and puts you in a position where you may have to beg or perform menial tasks for other inmates in exchange for toiletries and food.   However, lack of connections to the outside can also be a source of pride.  "I did my time alone."  Not accepting outside money or support may be a way of taking responsibility for one's actions.  Let's call it the neo-liberal approach. Inmates can earn their own money through prison jobs and creative hustles, build up that commissary stash all by themselves.  

In the Teixeiro prison, the economic set up is a little different. There are fewer opportunities for employment, only about 5-10% of the women in the prison have jobs.  Work that is paid in the US, like cleaning the common areas and sweeping the yard, are non-paid chores at Teixeiro. The cafeteria food is all prepared by men in other wings of the prison, so only a few women are needed to work serving the meals.  I am sure there are all kinds of hustles, but I haven't learned about that yet.  Still the fact that formal employment is extremely limited is a big difference from the US model where basically all inmates can get a job if they want one. Often a boring job that pays poorly, but a job nonetheless. In Connecticut, the minimum salary for a full-time worker (e.g. food prep) is 75 cents a day.  If inmates choose to go to school instead of work, they will be paid this same salary for being a student. The wages are low, but a little money can go a long way at the prison store and the opportunity to buy a sweatshirt or sneakers exists - even if it is going to take awhile to save up.

My understanding is that prisoners at Teixeiro who don't have any money to buy clothes and are not receiving support from people on the outside can submit a request to a local clothing shelter for specific articles of clothing.  Once the organization confirms with the prison that the individual does not, in fact, have any money on the books, they will prepare a package of used clothing items in the inmate's size.  Now, I start to see prison-issued sweat pants and blue jeans in a new light.

It strikes me as sort of un-European that the prison doesn't provide basic clothing for all inmates. Isn't the whole idea of socialist liberalism to provide basic needs for all? Honestly, my understanding of the system is still very anecdotal, so it is very possible I don't have the story quite right, that I am missing something.  At the same time, we know every system has room for improvement. The problem with making it to Oz is that when you pull back the green curtain, you realize it's just a regular guy sitting there. In other words, I am coming to realize that Spanish social services may not be as seamless as I thought. On the one hand, most everything is "covered"- health care, education, unemployment, retirement - at least until the austerity measures kick in.  But there are a smattering of items - food, housing, mental health services, and, in this case of prisons, clothing - that have historically been provided by family and the Catholic church.  As families dissolve and faith wanes in these modern times, gaps appear across the social service continuum.  Gaps, it is worth noting, that are nothing compared to the deep canyons that litter the US social service landscape, but gaps nonetheless.  The fact that the people most likely to fall through these gaps are folks at the margins, like prisoners and immigrants, makes the impetus to fix them less pressing.  So, if you and your mom aren't talking and NGO doesn't have your size, you may be out of luck.