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November 28, 2005

Fit To Be Tried


I ran across an interesting article recently at the BBC site.  It was part of a magazine feature titled "Who, What, Why?"  The particular question on the table happened to be:  Why do prisoners wear lurid jumpsuits?  While we have our orange suits in America, the article explained that "a lurid green and yellow version" was becoming common in England and Wales.

The article made two assertions about the effect of the suits.  First, they take the prisoner’s individuality away, making it more difficult to express themselves in court.  Second, the suit conveys associations of guilt and conviction.

Although I’m not familiar with the literature, I have some purely intuitive reactions to the article and the image.  When I look at the outfit, one thing I’m reminded of is a clown suit.  Maybe it’s just the prisoner’s expression here, but I wonder if the design is demeaning, eliciting a sense of dehumanization and humiliation.  I also was wondering, if it really is humiliating to wear this outfit, is this such a smart thing over the long run?  (Also, I’m not sure, but I have trouble believing this suit would have the same effect as the strictly orange version.)

The other association I had was contradictory to the one above.  Still, I thought I’d toss it out.

The jumpsuit also reminds me of the warm-up outfit used by professional
sports teams. If this connection has merit, it raises an issue I’ve
been thinking about ever since 9/11. If the intelligence, law
enforcement and behavioral science experts had a full say, would the
Bush Administration still have been able to put as much weight on
individual "evil doers?" Obviously, bin Laden had an international
profile prior to 9/11. Still, it seems that whenever BushCo. encounters
(or stimulates) an antagonist situation, it strips out most political
complexities, preferring to lay the blame at the foot of one person.

In going that route, however, it seems they bestow rock star status on
guys like bin Laden, Hussein, and Mussawi, turning them into celebrity
anti-heros. In the absence of such demonization, would these people
still have put together such formidable teams?

(image: Getty Images.  Published November 17, 2005.

  • Simon

    Occams Razor.
    They are that colour because.
    1. It makes the prisoner easier to see if they escape or harder for them to mingle in crowds.
    2. It is cheaper to buy jumpsuits in bulk.

  • Marysz

    The BBC article quotes the Home Office:”It is all about making them stand out from the crowd.” The media conflates criminality and celebrity in its endless search for sensation. Will these jumpsuits ever become a fashion statement the way some American prison clothing inspired the hip-hop look?
    Jumpsuits connote more than criminality or athleticism these days. During the SARS epidemic, health care workers wore elaborate jump suits and masks to protect themselves from infection. And look at these colorful suits worn during a drill simulating a chemical attack. These seemingly simplistic clothes are conveying more and more complex cultural messages.

  • Kevin

    This part struck me as I read the article:
    “Rights group Liberty says the uniforms degrade people.
    In jail rules on uniform are set by each individual prison. But prisoners can earn the right to wear their own clothes. ”
    Witness the increasing trend of our (U.S.) schools requiring uniforms, from kindergarten on up. The Feds will even help ‘underprivileged’ kids pay for them under Title I rules. And they will fight like hell against any parents who try to exempt their child from such rules. Check out this chilling report from a Texas parent:
    No wonder so many of us liberal-progressive-free thinker types thought of our first 12 grades as a prison, even before “uni-forms” were a concept.

  • joshowitz

    I agree with Occam’s Razor on this one. But, what would you have them wear? Should they have a choice? Maybe a Gap?
    Levinworth jeans? your ass won’t freeze while your on ice.
    Imprisonment by Ralph Lauren?
    Hoodlum Hoodies?

  • jt from B.C.

    What I observe is a revival of ‘The Great (Villain) Man’ theory of history.
    An approach to history associated with the nineteenth-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who declared, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle argued that heroes shape history through the vision of their intellect, the beauty of their art, the prowess of their leadership, and, most important, their divine inspiration.
    This theory supposedly dismissed by contemporary social scientists and historians has remained popular in the MSM and in Hollywood. How about that repetitive question “ What do you think this presidents legacy will be” ? GWB as a ‘ war president’ and ‘divinely inspired’.(please no one laugh) The WH gang are Carlyle believers and boosters.
    Our jolly jumper in the yellow and green get up is of course a little villain, stigmatized as is fitting to his social status. Will Lord Conrad Black our latest accused Corporate Crook be seen in such an out fit ?
    Yep BAG, I especially relate to your comments in the last two paragraphs.

  • ummabdulla

    Well, I think the U.S. government has been building up individuals as “booogiemen” for a long time. And they’re pretty good at it… they can convince the American public that just about anyone is a dire threat to their way of life. (There’s a whole string of them, although the only one that pops into my head at the moment is Noriega.)
    From what I’ve read of Zarqawi though (and I have no idea how accurate that is), he wouldn’t be much of anything if he hadn’t been built up that way. We wouldn’t have heard of him, and neither would most of the guys who are following him now.

  • mugatea

    Brings to mind The Replacements performing on SNL (late 80’s?),
    the bass player had an outfit that was as awkwardly eye catching.

  • jt from B.C.

    ummabdulla, from Castro to Chavez, plus a number of former leaders in between, living or dead, has or have been portrayed as evil incarnate and boogie men in the US. That’s only in Latin/South America and from 1960. These ‘evildoers’ globally appear to be reaching epidemic proportions.(the next bird flue pandemic may be a lot of horse feathers.)The GWB virus could become the most virulent of them all.

  • jt from B.C.

    umbmabdulla, I forgot to add that when I think about these things I’m, “Fit To Be Tied”

  • LanceThruster

    I agree that it is an attempt to make them stand out in case of escape, but many seem too trendy and once out in public, would just look like a case of modern fashion design run amok. Earlier versions were just basic denim wear with “Prisoner” or “Inmate” stenciled on the back with their prisoner number over the pocket. The comic tradition of black and white stripes seemed effective but maybe had too severe negative connotations for someone on trial. The solid orange jail jumpsuit seems a pretty fair compromise. To doctor it up excessively would make them seem like a harlequin, much as the man pictured does.

  • Chris

    Wow. When I was in high school, that stuff would have been popular. Let’s hope the 80’s never come back.

  • Jo

    I think it has to do with people who just want to be one of the group. It is sort of a world wide thing, a group together wants to look like each other. Even when the items are awful they will still wish to wear what is ‘in’in the group. I am willing to bet if they took this suit away they would all wear something else but all to look alike. Got to be something in human nature.

  • readytoblowagasket

    If colorful jumpsuits are supposed to help us on the outside identify prison escapees, then it should be easy to find out what a particular jail’s colors are, no? Actually, it’s not easy to find out what the Yakima County (Washington) escapees were/are wearing. I found no descriptions or color pictures except for this one:
    So are their jumpsuits white or orange or red-orange or something else? Maybe that’s why two of the four escapees are still at large?

  • readytoblowagasket

    One more sartorial note: It was widely reported in April that Zacarias Moussaoui wore a green jumpsuit, not an orange one, which doesn’t look very demeaning at all, according to the sketch:

  • floopmeister

    Well, as an Aussie, let me say the choice of colour scheme is interesting… :)
    Maybe he’s going to be shipped off to the penal colonies, to play in the Asutralian cricket team?

  • Lisa

    Someone mentioned that school uniforms were degrading. I disagree. I think the way that children dress today, especially girls.. even very young girls, is degrading and distracting but the main reason I like uniforms is that they tend to promote some sense of equality. Class does affect students’ treatment of others unfortunately and the removal of one of the most obvious symbols of class does to some extant erase those differences.

  • jt from B.C.

    floopmeister, with those tattoo’s don’t you think hes better suited for Aussie Rules Football, he might be a mean mother in the scrum of the starting XV as well. I’m not familiar with cricket so the final call is yours.

  • jt from B.C.

    Lisa, In theory the uniform idea sounds great but having worn one in private school ‘where individually was encouraged’, I was not alone in experiencing “the equality” of conformity, rigidity and regimentation. We all knew who the rich kids were, the cliques etc. We simply acted out differently than in public schools which I attended as well. We wasted a lot of learning time in pushing the limits to individualize our uniforms. This particular private schools uniform was definitely not seen socially as demeaning quite the contrary it produced sadly a false sense of personal worth, importance and arrogrance in many students. Uniforms are simply a band aid solution to a deeper social malaise. The Bag chips away at some of the propaganda techniques which support this malaise.

  • Lisa

    I too wore uniforms and wore freely chosen clothes depending on the school. How much time was wasted in school discussing the brands of jeans, or the stores where one shopped? How much derision for those who shopped at places less than yours? for those who did not have the right brand?
    There is much wrong with this country… yes, the stories on holiday shopping remind us od that. However, a band-aid is better than nothing and I, for one, am tired of seeing young girls sexualized by their clothing, boys underwear sticking out of their sagging pants. It is distracting and disruptive to the classroom.
    School dress codes are non existant today. If a child’s dress is deemed inapprorpriate, the parent overrules and threatens the school.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Maybe we should make kids wear jumpsuits to school, since they too are prisoners and have no rights….

  • ummabdulla

    Well, I have to agree with Lisa about the school uniforms. In many parts of the world, it’s just taken for granted that students in both public and private schools wear uniforms, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. As the mother of four boys, it’s certainly easier for me to just buy them each a few pairs of pants and a few shirts in September, and I’m done for the year. And I can’t even imagine how it would be to have four girls and not have uniforms!

  • bob crane

    ol’ mother reagan & daddy bush did the same in demonizing an individual to drum up popular support for a conflict. remember how bad qaddafi was, noriega, ortega, saddam, clinton, …. oh wait, that last one didn’t quite make it to a military conflict.
    you don’t see quite so many (or quite so vociferiously accused) during democrat administrations, yeah clinton had osama (but he hadn’t grown up quite so yet), milosovic (but he wasn’t a threat to the u.s.)and we’ve always had castro (but he hasn’t been a threat since the 60’s). republicans are great at demonizing an individual, rather than approaching complex social and political problems for what they are. besides it’s alot simpler to go ‘look it’s the devil, kill him then everything will be fine’. pity it never is fine afterward and within a short time the old devil (think noriega (or osama for that matter)) is forgotten and the new devil (sadaam) has taken his place – hey we at least got to use sadaam twice! they doubled their money on him (and he never did have a formidable team).

  • readytoblowagasket

    About school uniforms: As long as the girls can wear pants and the boys can wear skirts, I’m all for it!

  • hadassah weinreb

    I’m suprised that the American penal system chose orange. Yes white people look terrible in orange but, as Jimi Hendrix long ago showed, AfroAmericans look GREAT in orange.

  • lytom

    I came across a demand by political prisoners who used their lives to fight for this demand:
    “The right not to wear a prison uniform.”
    It was in 1981. Prisoners held in UK went on hunger strike, in support of political status. 10 Irish men died demanding this and other rights.
    Bobby Sands at all!
    Who is going to pick up where they left off?

  • fotonique

    Sadly, humiliation, loss of identity, and subjugation are merely side effects of wearing prison uniforms. Perhaps even worse, they are mostly a matter of human management (some examples in the last 150 years:

    Nobody looks like they’re laughing very much:

    The art of the clown is more profound than we think. It is the comic mirror of tragedy, and the tragic mirror of comedy. — Andre Suares

    There’s a wide variety of styles to choose from, but the most important haute couture concept is that your uniform must reflect the inner you, no matter which side of the wire you’re on. From the Made to Measure article, The Psychology of Uniforms:

    The foundation of the Disney brand promise is simple: To make people happy. And so happy colors abound in the program, especially yellow, the color of joy and optimism, as a main hue or an accent. Even Walt Disney World Security delivers the brand promise, in uniforms that deconstruct the typical military-inspired garb for the job. Wearing a casual, zippered navy jacket over loose-cut navy pants and open-necked white shirt, plus baseball cap—all highlighted with that happy yellow—the Disney security guard seems more like a trusted coach, somebody to look up to for moral guidance and protection, who’s genuinely interested in your personal well-being.
    Even the Disney patch on the security guard’s uniform reinforces the brand promise. The word “Security” is embroidered in “happy” yellow again, and its warm, right-leaning, italicized script curves up under the famous Mouse ears in the exact shape of a natural smile. In building a global brand as powerful as Disney’s, no detail is too small to be perfect.

    Now if you’d like something even more casual for Fridays at the office, see what’s on the rack at PX Direct Jail Products.
    Don’t forget to have your company logo silkscreened…

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