Prison uniforms, a symbol of incarceration and a tool for maintaining order and discipline within correctional facilities, have a rich history and serve multiple purposes. This article delves into the question, “What are prison uniforms called?” and explores the evolution, significance, and the role they play in the prison system.

The Origin of Prison Uniforms: The Auburn System

The concept of prison uniforms can be traced back to the Auburn prison system, which originated in New York in the 1820s. This system was unique and had several defining characteristics. One of the most notable was the requirement for prisoners to remain silent. This rule was strictly enforced to maintain order and discipline within the prison walls.

Prison Uniforms
Prison Uniforms

Another characteristic of the Auburn system was the specific walking style known as “lockstep.” This involved prisoners walking in a single file with each prisoner’s right hand on the shoulder of the one in front, their heads bowed down, and their eyes fixed on the back of the man ahead. This method of movement was designed to prevent communication between prisoners and to maintain control over large groups of inmates.

The most visually striking feature of the Auburn system, however, was the iconic black and white striped uniforms. These stripes were not merely a design choice; they symbolized the prison bars, serving as a constant reminder to the inmates of their confinement. The stark contrast of the black and white stripes made prisoners immediately recognizable as criminals. This was particularly useful in the event of an escape, as the public could easily distinguish them from the non-criminal population.

Symbolism of Stripes: More Than Just a Design

The black and white stripes on prison uniforms were more than just a design; they were a powerful symbol. They represented the bars that kept the prisoners confined, serving as a constant reminder of their status and the punishment they were serving. This visual distinction was a clear demarcation from civilian clothing, reinforcing the idea of punishment and separation from society.

The stripes were not only symbolic but also practical. They made it easier for prison staff to monitor prisoners and maintain order. The distinctive pattern made it difficult for prisoners to hide or blend in, whether within the prison or outside in the event of an escape.

The Shift to Solid-Colored Jumpsuits: A Sign of Changing Times

By the mid-twentieth century, the striped prison uniforms fell out of favor. This shift was driven by a change in the perception of the criminal justice system and the treatment of prisoners. The solid colors were less stigmatizing and more in line with the evolving principles of rehabilitation rather than mere punishment.

The move to solid-colored jumpsuits was not just a fashion choice; it was a reflection of changing societal attitudes towards prisoners. The solid colors were seen as less dehumanizing, helping to foster a sense of dignity and self-worth among inmates. This was in line with the growing emphasis on rehabilitation and the belief that treating prisoners with respect could aid in their reintegration into society.

The Modern-Day Prison Uniforms: A Return to Stripes?

In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the design of prison uniforms. More and more prisons are moving away from the traditional orange jumpsuit. The modern-day prison uniform can come in a variety of colors, with some prisons even reverting to the striped design. Prison supplier Bob Barker, for instance, offers a whole line of striped jumpsuits available in a rainbow of colors.

Stripes Prison Uniforms
Stripes Prison Uniforms

This shift in design reflects the ongoing debate about the purpose and effectiveness of prison uniforms. Some argue that the return to stripes is a step backwards, reviving the stigmatizing and dehumanizing aspects of the old Auburn system. Others, however, see it as a practical decision, arguing that the distinctive design enhances security by making prisoners easily identifiable.

The Role of Prison Uniforms: Order, Discipline, and Equality

Prison uniforms play a crucial role in maintaining order and discipline within the prison system. They create a sense of uniformity and equality among inmates, eliminating visible signs of wealth, status, or gang affiliation. This helps to reduce tension and conflict among prisoners, contributing to a safer and more orderly environment.

Uniforms also make it easier for prison staff to identify inmates, contributing to the overall security of the facility. They allow staff to quickly and easily distinguish between different categories of inmates, such as those with different security levels or those participating in different work programs.

The Impact of Prison Uniforms on Inmates: A Topic of Ongoing Debate

The impact of prison uniforms on inmates is a topic of ongoing debate. Some argue that uniforms can have a dehumanizing effect, stripping inmates of their individuality and reinforcing their criminal identity. This, they argue, can hinder the rehabilitation process and make it harder for inmates to reintegrate into society upon release.

Others, however, contend that uniforms can contribute to a sense of order and discipline, potentially aiding in the rehabilitation process. They argue that uniforms can help to break down social barriers and foster a sense of community among inmates, promoting cooperation and mutual respect.

Despite these differing views, one thing is clear: prison uniforms, whether striped or solid-colored, are a fundamental part of the prison system. They serve a variety of practical and symbolic roles, from maintaining order and discipline to reinforcing societal norms and expectations. As our understanding of the criminal justice system continues to evolve, so too will the design and use of prison uniforms.


Prison uniforms, often simply referred to as “prison blues” or “jumpsuits,” are a fundamental part of the prison system. They symbolize the loss of personal freedom and serve practical purposes such as easy identification and maintenance of order. As our understanding of the criminal justice system evolves, so too does the design and use of prison uniforms.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *