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The History of American Prison Uniforms

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Three Classes of Uniforms
This image, circa 1909, illustrates Minnesota's three classes of prisoners and their corresonding uniforms.

In 1787, prisoners from Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary were tasked with cleaning streets and repairing roads. To minimize the chances of convicts escaping into the bystanding crowd, their heads were shaved, they were chained together, and they wore "distinct infamous dress."

For many years, Eastern State was rare in its prisoner dress code. Not in the distinct dress, as that practice had migrated from England, but rather in the fact that there was no standard uniform. Textiles for prisoner garb were woven by prisoners on looms within the prison. Uniforms were sewn from whatever fabrics were produced. The only mandatory design rule was that the end result was to be a mixture of colors and patterns uncommon in apparel of the day. In other words, prison garb was to be so "infamous" that no one could mistake a prisoner for a free man taking a stroll along the streets of Philadelphia.

There was a keen distinction between local, 19th century jails (called "goals" by our ancestors) and penitentiaries. Jails served as temporary housing while a prisoner awaited trial. Uniforms, therefore, were not important. Still, jail keepers employed a surprisingly simple and effective means of identifying their prisoners: they took their shoes. The stigma against those with bare feet persists even to today, although few know its origins.

State penitentiaries, on the other hand, housed a much larger and more permanent population. Prison supervisors believed uniforms were not only necessary for identification, but also key to shaming prisoners into not re-offending. In effect, the uniforms themselves were part of the punishment.

In the early 19th century, states held differing views on how prisoners' uniforms should be distributed, cleaned and replaced. Maine's Board of Managers determined that prisoners were to be provided a clean suit of clothes every Sabbath morning. Few other prisons practiced that level of hygiene. Some prisons provided one uniform when a prisoner was admitted, and it was meant to last the entire term of confinement. This uniform was not laundered, but prisoners were required to wash daily using soap and towels offered at varying intervals. In other prisons, the shirt was regularly laundered, but not the pants.

Tennessee Prisoners
This image, published in 1913, shows the prisoner uniforms worn by Tennessee inmates during their first 90 days of incarceration.

Unlike Eastern State Penitentiary, most prisons in the late 1700s and early 1800s created uniform styles that indicated the crime for which the man was imprisoned, or the number of times he was incarcerated. Murderers in Louisiana, for instance, were made to wear "motley-colored" uniforms: black pants and shirts splattered and streaked with red paint. Stripes or braids were added to the shirts to indicate the number of incarcerations.

Prior to the Civil War, the most common prison uniform was of parti-color design. Sometimes the shirt and pants were different colors. In other instances the front of the uniform was one color, while the back was another.

The stereotypical black-and-white stripes are often erroneously reported as being the brainchild of the managers of New York's Auburn State Prison. Specific mention of striped uniforms, however, appears in the records of New York's Newgate prison in 1815 - two years before construction on Auburn was even completed.

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Southern Chain Gang
A Southern chain gang photographed between 1900 and 1906. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Fabric for Newgate's striped uniforms, like other northern prisons, was weather-dependent. In the winter, the jackets and trousers were made of striped wool. Summer uniforms were made of cotton. But Newgate prisoners also wore parti-color uniforms. Second termers (those incarcerated twice) wore uniforms divided down the middle, half of which was brown and the other half gray. Third termers wore a tri-color cap with the number "3" sewn onto its front.

Post Civil War, many states recognized a need for penal reform. One of the cornerstones of reform was the belief that parti-colored, motley colored and striped uniforms were degrading. This destruction of self-worth, reformers argued, made it more likely that released prisoners would - sooner rather than later - end up back behind bars. By the beginning of the 20th century, striped and other "infamous" uniforms were discarded by the majority of prison administrators. Plain, usually gray, uniforms replaced them.

By the 21st century, most prisoners wore "scrubs" - baggy matching shirts and pants similar to those worn in the medical profession. Some counties in the United States have used this similarity as justification to turn the clock back on prison uniform design. Several institutions adopted orange and white striped uniforms, ostensibly to prevent a misidentification of medical professionals as inmates. This return to shame-inducing garb was preceded in the 1990s by now-disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who made pink underwear mandatory because, he claimed, it prevented theft.

On December 17, 2015 the United Nations General Assembly passed Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisons, commonly known as the Mandela Rules. They were inspired by and named after the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in jail. One of these rules prescribes for the elimination of uniforms that shame prisoners. More than 200 years after Eastern State Penitentiary's "distinct infamous dress" caused a stir on the streets of Philadelphia, the debate on the efficacy of humiliating prison uniforms continues.

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