Dress Behind Bars
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Dress Behind Bars

Prison Clothing as Criminality

Juliet Ash

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eBook - ePub

Dress Behind Bars

Prison Clothing as Criminality

Juliet Ash

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About This Book

From nineteenth-century broad arrows and black and white stripes to twenty first-century orange jumpsuits, prison clothing has both mirrored and bolstered the power of penal institutions over prisoners' lives. Vividly illustrated and based on original research, including throughout the voices of the incarcerated, this book is a pioneering history and investigation of prison dress, which demystifies the experience of what it is like to be an imprisoned criminal. Juliet Ash takes the reader on a journey from the production of prison clothing to the bodies of its wearers. She uncovers a history characterized by waves of reform, sandwiched between regimes that use clothing as punishment and discovers how inmates use their dress to surmount, subvert or survive these punishment cultures. She reveals the hoods, the masks, and pink boxer shorts, near nakedness, even twenty first-century 'civvies' to be not just other types of uniform but political embodiments of the surveillance of everyday life.

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Information

Publisher
I.B. Tauris
Year
2009
ISBN
9780857732170
CHAPTER 1
from near naked to uniforms, pre-1800 to 1830s
The prison was covered with half-naked women.
Mary Sanderson, Journal (1817)
A woman prisoner came in to Newgate in silence, no covering, no stockings and a thin gown. We provided for her when she came in. And we provided clothes for her child.
Elizabeth Fry, Observations on Visiting, Superintending and Government of Female Prisons (London, 1827)
The same commitment to regimentation ... dictated that inmates wear uniforms. . .ones made of crude and simple design, with stripes.
David J. Rothman, ‘Perfecting the Prison: United States, 1789–1865’, in Norval Morris and David. J. Rothman (eds.), The Oxford History of the Prison:
The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford, 1998)
introduction
Clothing is not merely a reflection of broader developments in the history of penal reform. It is part of the culture just as much as prison architecture, public and hidden executions, enforced prison labour (as part of the industrial system) and differences of treatment across class and gender. Although included in penal literature and debates, clothing is rarely, if ever, their focus even when the ‘body’ is discussed as an aspect of the vacillations in penal policy between the overtly oppressive and the rehabilitative in line with current political thinking.
This chapter about clothing conditions in prisons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries focuses not only on England but also on Scotland, Wales, the USA, Australia and Europe. The differences in how the more, or less, favoured prisoners were dressed in the eighteenth century comprise a caricature reflection of the class differences, and anarchy, of the society outside.
This chapter traces prison clothing as a series of political reform advances and retreats between 1760 and 1830. As early as 1779, John Howard (1726–1790) proposed the introduction of a prison uniform. There were a few practical attempts at instigating uniforms in English prisons, such as at Gloucester Gaol in 1791, but they came to nothing. With little or no provision for prisoners’ needs, clothing came low on the list of priorities as the Quaker Mary Sanderson could still note in her journal in 1817 quoted above. Her friend and fellow Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845), one of the early female penal reformers, regarded clothing as just as crucial to prisoners’ morale and health as the broader reforms advocated by John Howard.
prison dress and reform movements
In official prison literature of the first half of the nineteenth century dress is occasionally mentioned specifically or appears amongst other prison conditions in reform documents, reports of prison visits and accounts by the prisoners themselves. But, at this time, it is only the more literate prisoners’ voices that are heard filtered through the religious, moral and political leanings of the reformers. The majority of penal reformers were male – so of course the literature also presents a gendered approach particularly to women’s prison dress. As is evident in the quotes above, the ethos of the time prevails in the writings of the reformers. When Elizabeth Fry, for example, argues for an improvement in women’s prison clothing, she does so in the name of ‘decency’ and philanthropic concern for morality as much as the comfort of women convicts. One of the objectives of the organisation she started, The Ladies Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate, was ‘to provide for the clothing, the instruction and the employment of the women . . .which may render them docile and peaceable when in prison and respectable when they leave it.’1
In the early nineteenth century, creating order out of disorder was of primary importance in attempts to convert, rehabilitate and control the criminal population, with dress occupying a central role. Prisoners were less enthusiastic. Far from ‘falling at their feet in penitent gratitude’, as Fry’s lady visitors expected, ‘they simply derided their efforts’.2
Enlightenment, Quakerism, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars aside, it was the conditions experienced by the mass of England’s population that helped trigger prison reform. Indeed that reform can be seen as a counter-revolutionary response to the disturbances of the early nineteenth century.
The period was characterised by an unequalled diminishment of rights for the labouring and dispossessed poor owing to ‘commercial expansion, the enclosure movement, the early years of the Industrial Revolution’, writes E.P. Thompson and adds, ‘all took place within the shadow of the gallows... It is not a pleasant picture’.3
The result was prisons filled with the poor and potential or actual revolutionaries. Criminological and prison historians talk of the authorities’ ‘malign neglect’ and historians comment on how prisons were ‘evil, disease ridden places, managed by corrupt officers’,4 where the provision of clothing was negligible. This laissez-faire state of the jails persisted well into the nineteenth century and although historians have been tempted to describe ‘it as benign neglect. . . malign neglect is more accurate’.5
Not, of course, that all prisoners lived in rags and absolute squalor. Alongside the destitute were those with money that bought them access to clothing, food, bedding and books. So some prisoners could live in reasonable comfort. But they were the minority.
Penal reformers were shocked by what they saw and elements of the upper classes, mindful of what had happened after the French Revolution, began to think that their own safety from revolutionaries who had been imprisoned might come through reform.
John Howard and penal dress conditions in England
According to penal reform literature in the late eighteenth century, the conditions in English prisons needed improvement and clothing was recognised as contributing to a situation of neglect of prisoners’ moral and physical welfare.
In 1773, John Howard, the philanthropist and newly appointed Sheriff of Bedfordshire, began an exhaustive survey of prisons which was to occupy him till his death. The work was to take him to the Low Countries, Germany, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France, Scandinavia and to assess, by reading the literature, conditions in the USA. By 1781, he calculated he had travelled more than 40,000 miles in his work, and he was still at work on the survey when he died in Southern Russia in 1790.
The first publication of his work was called ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ (1777). Prisons, he pointed out, were run by regimes that often broke existing laws. Amongst other iniquities was the disregard for clothing and other material and nutritional needs of prisoners. He called for purpose-built institutions, the abolition of prisoners’ fees and separation of different categories of prisoners. There had to be very basic changes if prisoners were to lead relatively healthy and sanitary lives.
In 1779 the Penitentiary Act, inspired by his research, went through Parliament. It aimed to regulate and control prisoners’ conditions via justices of the peace and magistrates ‘also with respect to the keeping, dieting, cloathing [sic.] [emphasis mine], employing, and providing for such Prisoners, and for the better regulating and governing the said Gaols and Houses of Correction, and to lay such Fines and Penalties for the Non-observance or Non-performance of the same, as the said Justices in their Quarter Session assembled’.6
This was a beginning. Not only were prisons to be reformed in order to provide prisoners with the rudiments with which to conduct their lives in a more sanitary and ordered manner, but the authorities were also to have the power to carry out the reforms rather than exact fees from prisoners. For the first time the regulation of clothing and a proposal for prison uniforms were mooted.
Howard published a series of tracts on prisons in 1784, amongst which was a pamphlet that was translated into English outlining the conditions of prisons in France. In his introduction to the pamphlet, Howard mentioned that there were lessons to be drawn for English reformers from the examination of inequalities in other countries. In the Bastille prison, Howard discovered that similar clothing conditions prevailed as in England. Distinctions existed between staff who ‘are clothed, provided with linen, shoes, salt, candle and firewood and have 10 sous a day’ and prisoners who were stripped of everything they possessed on entry. They could only acquire clothing, shaving equipment, toiletries and bed linen ‘as privileges to be bought if [they] can afford it’.7
The Marquis de Sade, for example, who was incarcerated in the Bastille in the years prior to its fall in 1789, ‘bought in ... a full complement of shirts, silk breeches; frac coats in camel-brown, dressing gowns, several pairs of boots and shoes; a selection of hats; three fragrances – rose water, orange water and eau-de-cologne – with which to anoint himself’.8
Howard was aware that the wealthy continued to live in luxury while the poor were in rags in both French and English prisons. ‘Malign neglect’ in terms of the unavailability of clothing for the poor was to continue in many European prisons until well into the nineteenth century. This was despite attempts by Howard and others to reform these conditions and the advent of broader changes in society brought about by revolutionary movements such as occurred in France in 1789.
Howard’s review of English prisons (1789)
It was partially the recognition of the iniquity of prison conditions throughout Europe that fuelled Howard’s determination to review whether the regulations he had earlier proposed for English prisons were carried out.
Additionally, in comparison to French and English prisons, he noted that the number of prisoners of all kinds in Holland, Switzerland and Scotland ‘[was] very small’.9 This was due to, he said, ‘the care which is taken in those countries to bring up children in habits of industry, and to give even the poorest a moral and religious background’.10
For Howard, decency, industry, order, moral and religious education were considered vital in order to improve the likelihood that prisoners would not re-offend. Institutions should provide nutritional food, washing facilities and improved living conditions, including adequate clothing across gender and class lines.
It was this attitude which contextualised many of the reforms, amongst them prison clothing, throughout Europe and America during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Howard wrote in 1784, ‘That all prisoners, except debtors, be clothed on their admission with a prison uniform, and that their own clothes be returned them when they are brought to trial, or are dismissed.’11
Additionally, he proposed the separation of classes of prisoners from each other.
Twelve years later Howard published a review in which he investigated how far his proposals had been implemented. His review of 1789 covered not just prisons but also schools, hospitals and workhouses and both local jails that housed convicted prisoners and houses of correction that were the equivalent of the earlier – and still existing in places – Bridewell Prisons. These, largely, housed vagrants who were incarcerated in order to be reformed into industrious contributors to society. There were many cross-overs between workhouses and Houses of Correction and, in some instances, issues of clothing the poor in workhouses coincided with the reforms proposed regarding clothing and uniforms for prisoners.
Howard’s work anticipated debates that countered prison as rehabilitative against prison as a form of continued privation after sentencing. Later Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his Utilitarian secular disciples took Howard’s arguments for reform and channelled them into more regimented nineteenth-century penal regimes. Bentham saw punishment as ‘an impartial act of social necessity’12 but people like Howard and later Fry were informed by piety and a charitable concern with the improvement of prisoners’ souls through the everyday structuring of time, space and employment. The rehabilitation of prisoners through a more ordered environment and employment, thought Howard, was ‘in their [offenders’] own interests’.13
Despite Howard’s efforts, improvements in the provision of clothing were haphazard. Despite the acts passed between the 1790s and 1830s, referring to the introduction of uniforms, there is no evidence of the arrival of a universal uniform until the late 1840s.
The chasm between the reforms Howard wanted and their implementation in his lifetime underlined just how dramatic the change in prison culture was for which he argued. Similar problems have dogged reformers and rulers ever since. Uniforms in the mid-nineteenth century were discussed for years before they were put into practice, and subsequently often revised or reversed, as other ways of thinking about crime and criminals came to the fore.
Back in the 1780s, the gaps were huge. In Oxford, when prisoners were not employed in building the new prison, they were fettered. Despite this, Howard wrote, ‘the encouragements here given with respect to their diet, clothes [emphasis mine], and terms of confinement have been the means of recovering many from their bad habits and of rendering them useful members of society’.14
Meanwhile at Dorchester County Gaol, prisoners were kept in irons for long periods of time. Even worse off were the 32 men chained in dungeons in Warwick County Gaol and where ‘some of the felons complained of having bee...

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