For over two decades, there’s been a quiet revolution underway in America’s correctional system. To be sure, a lot of changes have been taking place there — the use of punitive solitary confinement has been growing since the early 1970s and the incarceration of African Americans skyrocketed in the late 1980s and never declined. But there’s a far subtler change happening that holds broad implications for the correctional system as a whole. The shift is in uniforms.
Since the 1990s, sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious for the penal colony atmosphere he maintains at his Tent City Jail just outside Phoenix, as well as for being indicted for systematic racial profiling, draconian anti-corruption initiatives, allegedly ignoring sex crimes, instituting anti-Latino policies against inmates, and being sued by the ACLU for racial profiling, has raised eyebrows for foisting the color pink on his inmates. Inmates, regardless of gender, mill around the 2,126 person facility in hot pink sandals, socks and underwear, are transported wearing pink handcuffs, fan themselves with pink fans branded with the sheriff’s face, sleep on hot pink sheets, and wipe the sweat from their brows with pink hand towels as they swelter in the Arizona desert.
Unsurprisingly, Arpaio’s clothing policies have not gone without litigation. In 2007, Arpaio was sued by the family of Eric Vogel, a mentally ill inmate who believed he had been raped when he was forcibly dressed in pink underwear by Arpaio’s staff. Vogel died of acute cardiac arrhythmia a month later when he fled the scene of a car accident, a death Vogel’s family allege was the result of his fear of returning to the Tent City Jail. After years of litigation, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, affirming a previous ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that had criticized Arpaio’s underwear policy, noting, “Unexplained and undefended, the dress-out in pink appears to be punishment without legal justification.”
Despite remonstrations, Arpaio’s policies have served as an inspiration for other institutions across the US. In Mason, TX, inmates in the tiny county jail in the Texas Hill Country are not only are forced to endure pink-washed walls, a hangover from the Baker-Miller pink phenomenon that swept such institutions in the late 1970s, but also to wear prison uniforms of the same color. The same goes in west Texas’ Brewster County Jail, which made the switch to pink this year. The Grovetown Jail in Columbia, County, Georgia also recently changed the color of their uniforms to hot pink. The color is gaining a foothold in Oklahoma, both in Magnum and in Norman, where inmates at the Cleveland County jail wear a garish combination of pink shirts and yellow and white striped trousers.
While inmates at these institutions named above wear pink as a matter of general policy, inmates in the South Carolina state system are forced to wear pink for a period of three months following incidents of sexual misconduct viz. masturbation. An inmate sued over this punishment in 2006, claiming that the forced wardrobe change violated his constitutional rights by exposing him to violent intimidation. The case was thrown out in 2008.
So what, exactly, is going on here? Most of the institutions involved in this practice offer a variety of unconvincing justifications for the color change ranging from the need for greater visibility in prison uniforms to (no less preposterously) their use as a crime deterrent, a sartorial “scared straight” program. None have so far addressed the connotations of the color or its clear intention to emasculate inmates. Only Arpaio, the de-facto guru of the movement, has acknowledged that the application of pink serves no corrective function. As he stated in 2012, “why give them a color they like?”
But even Arpaio, in acknowledging the purely punitive nature of the color’s use, fails to admit its clearly intended role. As the color pink has become symbolically associated with femininity and homosexuality, the imposition of pink clothing appears to be an overt attempt to humiliate male prisoners by undermining their masculinity. Naturally, the color’s current use bears obvious comparison to the method of identifying homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
The LGBTQ movement has since recuperated the color, however, for those violently opposed to homosexuality, it continues to be perceived as a symbol of queerness even in the absence of intent. In August of 2013, a 2-year-old was assaulted and harassed for wearing a pink headband at a Florida Walmart. In 2014, a man in the Dallas airport was kicked in the groin by an intoxicated fellow traveller for wearing a pink t-shirt. The assailant was heard to shout, “Queers is what I am upset about!”
Assigned in a correctional context, the color exploits the fears of emasculation that attend the male prison experience, an anxiety researchers and administrators have long been aware of. In the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, inmates in the mock prison were clothed in caps made from women’s stockings and gowns lead investigator Philip Zimbardo referred to as “dresses.” As Zimbardo noted at the time, “real male prisoners, we have learned, do feel humiliated, do feel emasculated, and we thought we could produce the same effects very quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes.” More recently, the images from Abu Ghirab showed guards at the prison engaging in acts of obscene and degrading sexual torture humiliation. Investigations into the incidents have revealed that such sexual humiliation in military prisons is the norm rather than the exception.
In connoting emasculation, the imposition of pink clothing in the same ideological camp as prison rape humor. As The Guardian’s Stephen W. Thrasher recently noted, prison rape humor revels in sexual violation, particularly that of black males, as the ultimate form punishment: “America likes to see ‘bad black men’ who run afoul of the police state humiliated — and what can be more hilariously humiliating than to take a black man and let him be raped?”
In their casual abundance, such jokes have more or less normalized prison rape as “business as usual.” A glance at the front page of the New York Post, bidding former Subway spokesman and convicted child molester Jared Fogle to “ENJOY A FOOTLONG IN JAIL,” bears this out. While a national reckoning is currently underway regarding rape culture, prison rape has gone one largely without critique. Prison rape humor is so ubiquitous, in fact, that President Obama recently came forward to criticize its prevalence.
Naturally, these jokes are the trace of the far graver problem of actual prison rape and the social indifference to it. Despite the passing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, a federal law stipulating the creation of a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission and mandating the high prioritization of prison rape by the US Department of Justice, prison rape has been increasing, an estimated 39% rise between 2005 and 2011. While there are numerous explanations for the upsurge, a commonly cited one is the widespread non-compliance of state governors.
Broadly speaking, both the indifference to the growing problem of prison rape and to the inhumane assignment of uniforms speak to the increasingly anachronistic state of American corrections. To put it bluntly, prisons now increasingly look like the prisons of 200 years ago. As Peiter Spierenburg notes in “The Body and the State: Early Modern Europe,” late-18th century European punishment was extraordinarily liberal in its use of shame. Dissolute women, typified by Hester Prynne, wore clothing to announce their transgressions, branding the skin of convicts was common in Western Europe, and in numerous countries, by restraining them in “the pillory” and leaving them vulnerable to public harassment.
As Juliet Ash recounts in Dress Behind Bars, the earliest iterations of the prison uniforms likewise purposefully humiliated inmates. In 1796, London’s Newgate Prison instituted a prison uniform that resembled a medieval court jester. As Ash writes, “Not only were prison uniforms designed to prevent escape but they were also fashioned to humiliate the wearer.” These uniforms, a precursor to the black-and-white striped uniforms that Newgate would debut twenty years later, “marked out convicts as risible or to be pitied in the eyes of the public.” Ash notes that by the mid-19th century these clown costumes would be replaced by suitable working clothes, indicative of changing middle class aspirations towards prison reform. While numerous changes in prison clothing have occurred since the late 18th century, a return to clothing-as-humiliation represents an unprecedented regression.
To anyone versed US prison policy, the institution of pink uniforms is clearly part of a trend. The move of institutions to return to the costumes of the late 18th century, effectively rejecting the prevailing model of the prison as a site of humane punishment and reform, is only the latest outcome of the ‘tough on crime’ crusade that has been ascendant in the United States since the late 1960s. As scholars argue, the movement emerged from initial governmental responses to the civil rights movement and to a perceived rise of criminality in the US. In a stark opposition to the welfare state and to the legitimacy of the civil rights movement, politicians like Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater gave voice to a deeply conservative movement that demonized the nation’s poor and viewed harsh prison sentences as both a deterrent and an appropriate punishment for often petty crimes. The “tough on crime” movement led to such American institutions as mandatory minimum sentences, punitive isolation, and a gutting of prison education and rehabilitation programs. The return to the clothing of humiliation is effectively the latest turn in a vicious, half-century-long clampdown.
Somewhat unbelievably, the county may be in for a Thaw. A bill proposed this summer by representatives Jim Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott (The Save, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act) proposes to reduce the prison population by limiting “overcriminalization,” exploring alternatives to prison time, and preventing recidivism. The bill has gained bipartisan support, including the backing of House Speaker John Boehner who noted, “Some of these people are in [prison] under what I’ll call flimsy reasons.”
While these tentative gestures towards reform are indeed encouraging, the culture of “tough on crime” seems irrepressible. As Arpaio’s example suggests, county sheriffs not only hold considerable power in determining the wardrobe of their inmates, they are also evidently resilient when it comes to critique and censure by the press and the courts. Additionally, while only a handful of institutions have moved to pink garments, a far larger institutional swing, about fifteen years old now, has seen jails and prisons returning to the black and white stripes of the 19th century. Inmates at the Saginaw County Jail in Saginaw, Michigan now wear the iconic black and white vertical stripes virtually identical to those trotted out by Newgate Prison in 1815. Institutions in Texas, Maine, Ohio, Nebraska, and other states have replaced solid colors with the iconic stripes. While certainly not as deliberately humiliating as hot pink, striped uniforms function similarly in symbolically imposing shame upon the bodies of inmates. Taken together, these regressions toward punitive clothing fly in the face of those seeking to reform the world’s most populated corrections system.