Monday, 18 August 2014

Uniformity and Institutionalisation

I was recently asked what it felt like to have had to wear a prison uniform when I was a prisoner. It’s a complex question to answer, but I’ll give it a go. 

Primarily, prison uniform is all about uniformity. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but I’ll try to explain what I mean. In the ‘traditional’ prison setting, being compelled to wear distinctive clothing provided by the institution was part of the punishment. It set prisoners apart from the rest of society. In that respect, it is designed to depersonalise individuals.

HMPS shirt
Of course, like many people of my generation I’d previously worn all manner of institutional uniforms: school, Scouts, sports teams, armed forces, academic dress… all of which could be worn with either a sense of resentment or pride, depending on the circumstances. Prison clothing is different. It has a psychological impact because it has the capacity to change fundamentally how you view yourself in relation to the rest of society. It forms part of a wider process of institutionalisation.

Prison uniforms have a long history. When the Irish writer Oscar Wilde was sent down in May 1895 for two years’ imprisonment after being convicted of gross indecency, the Victorian tabloid press revelled in all the details of his post-conviction humiliation. Having his long hair cropped and being forced to wear the canvas prison uniform were an integral part of Wilde’s disgrace, degradation and punishment. The outfit marked him out as no longer being a decent citizen or a free man worthy of respect. 

Cartoon of Oscar Wilde
Famously, when Wilde was transferred from HMP Wandsworth to Reading Gaol he was taken from London by train, handcuffed and dressed in his prison garb. He was made to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction while a mob surrounded him jeering and, according to some biographers, spitting at him. He later wrote that this experience was the worst day of his entire prison sentence. I suspect that the average Daily Mail reader would enthusiastically head off to Clapham Junction on a regular basis if he or she could have the opportunity to do a bit of jeering and spitting at cons dressed in their uniforms and handcuffs.

Some uniforms are deliberately designed to degrade and humiliate. I’m sure that when the use of the distinctive orange jackets was imposed on those sentenced by the courts to carry out Community Payback work in December 2008, there were similar objectives in mind. It was all about the public shaming of offenders and, predictably, there were incidents of jeering and verbal abuse from passers by. I suppose it was a mercy that the outfit didn’t include a set of ankle shackles too, or a ball and chain. At least inside jail you don’t get members of the general public weighing in to add their own contribution to the punishment that has been handed down by the courts. 

Payback can be a bastard
I frequently wore prison uniform at various points throughout my sentence, including during my spell in the Block (segregation unit). At one B-cat prisoners could only wear their own clothing if they were on the Enhanced level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, so I just wore prison jeans, a blue and white striped shirt and a gray sweatshirt. To be honest, I didn’t really mind. Even when I was eventually given Enhanced status, I only used my personal clothing on the wing in the evenings. We all had to wear prison kit at work anyway, so it didn’t really matter much, partly at least because most of us were in the same situation.

Prison t-shirt
It shouldn't be forgotten that prison uniform also serves to reinforce the great divide between prison officers (who wear black trousers and white shirts), governor grades (who wear suits) and civilian staff who wear normal clothing, and convicts who are dressed in shabby, grubby t-shirts and tracksuits bottoms or jeans. It functions as a constant reminder of the vast difference in status within prisons between those who are in custody and their keepers.

There is little doubt that prison uniform also has a tendency to depersonalise. In particular, it does nothing to help those individuals who already have very low self-esteem, often as a consequence of years of neglect and abuse. In certain circumstances it may also draw attention to new arrivals in prison as being ripe for bullying and intimidation by other cons who are already integrated into the system.

Prison arrows
Based on my own experience, I believe that prison dress can also play a significant role in institutionalising prisoners, particularly those serving long sentences. You do tend to lose any pride in your personal appearance, not least because the uniform that is issued is often very old, stained and in poor repair even though the Prison Rules makes it clear that such clothing should be clean and decent. It can also be stamped prominently with the establishment’s initials, thus ‘branding’ both the item of clothing and the wearer just as effectively as the old style Victorian broad arrows that began to be used on prison uniforms in the 1870s.

However, attitudes gradually changed in the final decades of the 20th century. Starting in the 1980s there had been a move away from forcing prisoners into uniforms. The idea was that in order to reduce the risk of institutionalisation, inmates serving longer sentences should be encouraged to wear their own clothing, cook their own food in wing kitchens and generally take more responsibility for their lives as part of the process of preparing for release and resettlement. I suspect that there was also the ulterior motive of saving money, because prisoners purchased their own clothes, or had them sent in from home. This has saved the taxpayer a fair amount of money over the years.

Unfortunately, this more progressive trend has now been reversed. One of Chris Grayling’s flagship policies has been to get adult male prisoners back into prison uniform (female prisoners are exempt). From 1 November 2013, all newly convicted receptions have had their personal clothing confiscated on arrival at prison and have been forced to wear prison kit for at least the first two weeks of their sentences. This was introduced in the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system and is called “Entry level”.

Prison made uniform... rarely found in the stores
The clear purpose of the new rules is for the government to be seen as being ‘tough’ on criminals. It also adds to the general ‘shock and awe’ of imprisonment, at least for first timers. That is likely to be the period during their sentences when they are most vulnerable and liable to self-harm or suicide, so it must make perfect sense (at least in Grayling World) to deliver a bit of additional, entirely gratuitous, humiliation. 

Originally the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) also proposed to ban new receptions from watching television until the collective wisdom of the Prison Service pointed out that: a) this would create all kinds of problems with cell-sharing arrangements with prisoners on Entry level not being able to share pads with cons on Standard or Enhanced levels and b) the suicide and self-harm rate might well start rocketing. That has happened anyway, even though the idea of banning TVs was quietly kicked into the long grass.

Although the new IEP policy came into effect on 1 November 2013, due to a lack of planning and budget very little new prison kit had been ordered. This has meant that many establishments have struggled to clothe new prisoners on Entry level. They just have to issue whatever items are on the shelves in the stores, regardless of condition or size. The result has been reports of cons being humiliated by having to dress like clowns in ridiculous items of uniform that are either incredibly small and don’t fit, or are massively large. Let’s not forget that similar methods have been used to degrade and humiliate prisoners by some pretty nasty regimes around the world.  

Another issue is health and hygiene. I’ve worked in a prison laundry (in fact, I now have a full set of SATRA certificates that qualify me to operate an industrial laundry, in the unlikely event I should wish to do so) and I know at first hand how inadequate some of the cleaning processes can be. Machines aren’t serviced regularly and on occasion there is insufficient bleach or washing chemicals available. 

This is important because a significant number of prisoners suffer from serious skin complaints, carry hepatitis or other infectious conditions or have varying degrees of incontinence. There have even been outbreaks of scabies in some establishments. These are other practical reasons why issuing old, dirty kit can impact on prisoners’ physical health – as well as that of prison staff, for that matter.

Prison work gear
At my last prison, a D-cat, prisoners were arriving from closed establishments in GeoAmey sweatboxes (transport vans) dressed in the prison clothes they stood up in only to find the stores' shelves empty. I know inmates who have been forced to wear the same set of filthy underwear, t-shirt and jogging bottoms for weeks because there was no change of uniform available and they were no longer permitted to have parcels of clean clothing sent in by their families following the introduction of the new IEP rules.

The situation was made much worse because the new policy was implemented during the winter of 2013. Back in December, prisoners at our establishment were unable to obtain prison-issue fleece coats even though it was freezing and they still had to report for work outdoors, line up for meals in the open air and walk between buildings. 

I’ve personally loaned spare clothing – although this was against the Prison Rules – to fellow cons who were literally shivering with cold because they had been given nothing other than a thin cotton t-shirt and sweater, even when temperatures were freezing. I know other inmates who did the same because they were so outraged at the basic inhumanity of the new IEP system and the incompetency of the Prison Service administrators for failing to order sufficient clothing prior to implementing the new rules. 

It is all very well forcing prisoners into prison uniform for ideological reasons, but when there actually isn’t any available in the stores, the result can only be imagined. At a time when prison budgets are being slashed, it took a stroke of genius to make a decision to confiscate the clothing of thousands of men without also thinking through what they were to be dressed in once they have been stripped naked in Reception.  

Prison joggers: old and stained
Like so many other ‘big ideas’ that are launched to score cheap political points, the prison uniform saga was badly thought out down in London. What no-one yet seems to have picked up on in the media is the negative impact on prisoners in open conditions (D-cats). 

Previously cons in open prisons were able to fill in a reception application and have a reasonable amount of private clothing sent in from home or else buy it in town while released on temporary licence (ROTL). Already, many D-cats are filling up with lads wearing the gray prison tracksuits they arrived in. Inside the nick this might not be a problem, but what happens when these prisoners apply for ROTL (assuming Mr Grayling doesn't ban it completely)? They can hardly go to town or jump on a train to go on home leave with HMP stencilled across their backs, not least because it is against the rules for prisoners to wear prison clothing into local towns because of the risk of vigilante attacks.

Also, prison kit can't be used for either voluntary work in the community or paid work, assuming cons can actually find some and get it approved. Imagine turning up for a job interview in a prison uniform set off by a fetching pair of ‘Ranby Reeboks’ (prison trainers). It’s not going to happen.

What Team Grayling has cleverly managed to do is create a twin-tier system inside open prisons. If inmates have money, then they can buy private clothes via the approved mail order catalogues (usually Very or M&M) and apply for ROTL or work opportunities. However, if a con has to survive on £8-£10 a week prison wages then the likelihood that they will ever be in a position to purchase their own clothing is very remote. In practice, this means that they will be excluded from opportunities – such as voluntary work or temporary home or day leave – because of the new rules. So much for the idea of resettlement, particularly for lifers and those serving very long sentences. 

Still, all this does provide an opportunity for a bit of altruism. When I was discharged from prison a matter of months ago, I took hardly any of my own gear with me. I just handed it out to my poorer mates who I knew would appreciate some buckshee civilian kit. I think I probably clothed six lads so now they can apply for ROTL or voluntary work. Of course, that broke various rules, but such is life as a con.


  1. I started reading this blog to "know my enemy" , will you stop being so reasonable please? It is making it difficult to dislike you.

    Y. Bill

    1. Thanks for your comment! I must admit I did laugh out loud when I read it.

      The aim of the blog is to inform (and maybe entertain a little bit, as well), so I try to be as fair and balanced as possible, although that is getting more and more difficult when it comes to Team Grayling and NOMS.

      I'm always happy to answer any questions if I can, so if you would like to know more about what goes on on the 'other side of the door', feel free to ask away! And I hope you keep reading!

  2. The concept of a prison uniform kind of eludes me. My experience was being stripped naked in reception and being presented with a collection of rags I was expected to somehow clothe myself with.

    A uniform to me is a very smart symbol of the group you represent. That's not what you are given in any prison reception. Fletcher in Porridge actually looked rather smart compared to what you average con is wearing.

    I too have been employed in forced labour in the prison laundry. Rivalry between wings can be fierce, one wing in particular sent their dirty laundry deliberately soaked in urine to annoy the laundry guys. Probably just a couple of individuals doing that but on many occasions that laundry had a quick rinse and returned to the wing contaminated with who knows what and it didn't smell particularly pleasant.

    Joggers are the normal apparel of cons, some cunning slaves, sorry, workers in the tailoring workshops would add pockets to them in exchange for a chocolate bar. Pockets were banned - jeans with pockets are OK, joggers not - very odd! Despite being banned "pants with pockets" were really sought after.

    I never exploited my position in the laundry but it did give me access to the "better" clothing. We weren't allowed to take anything out but concealing items to help yourself or others was commonplace and, to be fair, the screws working there, quite righty, really did turn a blind eye.

    The rags I had to wear really didn't affect me on a day-to-day basis, it was only when my family visited. I'm usually quite well presented and didn't want my family to see me dressed in dirty, stained and torn rags. On the wings it doesn't matter so much as everybody is in the same situation.

    PSIs may state that clothing has to be of an acceptable condition but in the prison service PSIs mean pretty much nothing. They just carry on doing what they do without any repercussions until an independent report points out how they're failing so badly to which they reply "we're taking measures to improve". Of course, as any former (or current) inmate knows, it's complete and utter bullshit.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for a really ineresting and well written blog! When I wnet inside for a few months for a white collar offence, it as quite a change to going from a shirt and tie to a slate grey tracksuit 24/7. The plimsolls were quite comfy though..). It is embarrasng fr family or frieds to see you in thse fashionable prison clothes

  3. I watched an episode of "Porridge" tonight, the cons looked very smart in striped shirts, grey trousers and jumpers

    1. Thanks for your comment. Sadly, brilliant as Porridge is the fictional version is way out of date. Most cons today wear grey jogging bottoms, light blue or maroon t-shirts and grey or blue sweatshirts. Only the striped shirts have survived as in some nicks these have to be worn during visits, but otherwise you rarely tend to see them. You can also put in for a pair of jeans, but the days of the traditional uniform - as seen in Porridge - are long gone.

  4. Uniforms portrays strength in numbers. It could be service or religious in nature. The uniform is a very powerful and influential in whatever setting the uniform is worn.

  5. Wow, the prison system in the UK sounds like heaven compared to what we have here in the States

  6. Wow, the prison system in the UK sounds like heaven compared to what we have here in the States