How clothing in prison identified who you were
by Ryan Foster


Before going to prison I was advised to take my own underwear with me. In female prisons – which I have very limited knowledge of – inmates can wear their own clothes. In the male prisons I was in, the rules varied.

Remand prisoners are generally allowed their own clothing, but in the first prison I was in, this rule wasn’t observed. I had seven pairs of socks and seven pairs of underpants when I arrived immediately after court. These items were removed from me and I was told I would have to use prison-issue clothing, which I did for the first four weeks of my sentence until I was moved to another prison. On reception there, I was allowed the clothing back. The prison issue uniform is grey jogging bottoms and grey sweatshirts with a baby blue T-shirt. Sizes are never taken into consideration, nor is the state for the garments. Quite often, massively over or undersized garments would be swapped on the wing after kit change.

Clothing could be sent in from friends and family, and exchanged during visits, but the quantities of garments was controlled and could only be swapped on a one for one basis. If you were friendly with a wing orderly, it was possible to get clothes washed, usually for the price of a chocolate bar. Otherwise, hand-wash powder could be purchased from the canteen for use in your own cell, or you can use prison-issue shower gel. It was accepted that prison clothing was very poor so wherever possible, you’d keep the best or newest garments you could, wash them yourself in your cell and keep them, rather than risking swapping a good item for something tired. Whether you can wear your own clothing depends on the Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP) level you are at. With good behaviour – or more precisely, no bad behaviour – your status will be raised from ‘standard’ to ‘enhanced’.

The waiting period to be upgraded is around three months – and when you were upgraded, you were allowed to wear your own clothing. What you could wear was strictly controlled – so no football shirts, nothing showing a flag of any nation, no hoods or hats, no black or blue shirts (essentially anything that might make you look like an officer). Clothing didn’t really put people into groups but it did differentiate them. Anybody wearing their own clothes was seen as established in the prison – they’d been there for at least three months with no bad behaviour, and were seen as a little more trustworthy. Wing orderlies were issued with green work trousers – these jobs were the most sought-after, and only the most trusted inmates were offered them. So anybody wearing ‘greens’ was also seen as trustworthy. If allowed, street clothing does give a little kudos on the wings. It’s a sign of your status – that you’re somewhat trusted and established, as no newcomers have their own clothes. It also commands respect in a very strange way – if you’re in your own clothes, you’re established, and you probably know people inside, so there’s less chance of someone taking a chance on you as they feel they may get repercussions.

Shoes were a very telling sign of status too. Inmates new to the wing would usually arrive straight from court, and be issued with grey jogging bottoms and a grey sweatshirt but no shoes. Most would have attended court smartly dressed, very often wearing shiny leather shoes, which they would have to wear on the landings with their jogging bottoms. Of course, this wasn’t a good look and made them stand out.

The prison issued trainers to anyone who attended the gym but there was a waiting list for induction. Until then, you had to wear whatever shoes you were wearing in court. Clothing was only really an issue during visits. Some of the prison issue garments were nothing more than rags. It was accepted on the wings because it’s just what you were given. It was almost part of the initiation in reception that you were strip searched, had your street clothes removed from you and handed prison clothing. It’s degrading but, in a way, it’s almost a leveller – everybody is the same, you’re all wearing the same rags.

Still, it wasn’t a good look – even to the most unfashionable, it was clear they were wearing worn out rags. But for family visits, the guys would put aside their least ragged garments to look their best. It was possible to borrow an iron and ironing board for family visits, legal visits or court appearances but this wasn’t taken up very often. Personally for me, I didn’t mind the prison clothing, I got myself into a position where I built up my own decent clothing from what was given to me and retained it. More important was having my own underwear. The state of prison underwear was disgusting – it might be clean and sanitary but stains don’t get removed through the laundering process. I would dread to think how many men had worn the boxers shorts that were being handed out.


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