Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Prison stripes

I don't know why these things occur to me, but they do. Yesterday I went in search of the origin of prison stipes, and here's what I found.... Prison uniforms have traditionally been distinguished by horizontal black and white stripes - symbolic of cell bars - to facilitate the recognition and recapture of escapees. The custom in the U.S. dates back to the 1800s, when two prison systems arose. The Pennsylvania system was established by the Quakers and encouraged penitence by forcing prisoners to live and work alone in their cells. The Auburn system established prison industries by allowing prisoners to work together during the day, under strict conditions: they were not allowed to look at or speak to each other, they walked in lockstep, their hair was cut short, and they wore striped uniforms. The pattern became a badge of disgrace and was abandoned in many institutions in the early 20th c. in favor of work clothes. This was in part due to the Depression, during which many people were incarcerated for petty crimes, vagrancy, and debt: "The idea of who was a prisoner changed." In the 1990s, after prison populations had swelled due to the drug trade, easy access to guns, and gang activity, the public clamored for harsher treatment. Among other things, this resulted in changes to the uniform - and a reversion from denim or jumpsuits to the notorious stripes. "I don't want it to be the nicest jail they've ever been in. If there is a little humility in wearing a black-and-white uniform, so be it," says a Kansas sheriff. According to the leading uniform supplier, the stipes account for 1/4th of all sales, with the majority or orders for black and white - but they are now available in red, orange, green, and blue.

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