“Does anyone know why we don’t want them to individualize their uniform?” This is the question asked by an assistant warden at a morning meeting of Corrections Corporation of America correctional officers as reported in Mother Jones’ 35,000-word expose on the company’s operations in its July/August 2016 issue.

He answers his own question this way: “We want them institutionalized. You guys ever heard that term? We want them institutionalized, not individualized. Is that sort of a mind game? Yup. But you know what? It’s worked over the couple hundred years that we’ve had prisons in this country. So that’s why we do it. We do not want them to feel as though they are individuals. We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle. We are just moving ’em from point A to point B, letting them graze in the dining hall and then go back to the barn. OK?”

How absolutely inhumane. Sadly, this is not only happening in CCA’s corporate prisons, which currently house about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners on the mainland, it’s happening right here at the Halawa Correctional Facility.

A prisoner at the Halawa Correctional Facility in a striped uniform, based on designs from the 19th century when the outfits were conceived as badges of shame.
A prisoner at the Halawa Correctional Facility in a striped uniform, based on designs from the 19th century when the outfits were conceived as badges of shame. KHON via YouTube

On Sept. 2, 2014, Hawaii News Now reported:

It’s a new spin on an old look. Inmates in the Halawa Correctional Facility are wearing horizontally striped uniforms.

The prison’s warden made the change citing safety concerns. Ted Sakai, the director of the Department of Public Safety, gave his blessing.

“It was becoming more difficult to readily identify inmate from staff. For example, healthcare staff tend to wear scrubs of different colors” Sakai said.

And to reinforce the official disdain for incarcerated persons, Gov. David Ige appointed Nolan Espinda, former warden of Halawa, as his director of the Department of Public Safety!

Clothing Intended To Be Degrading

The striped uniforms worn by our people at Halawa were designed in the 19th century and intended to serve as a badge of shame to humiliate the prisoners who wore them.

One of the biggest proponents of striped uniforms — besides the State of Hawaii — is notorious Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who also makes his male prisoners wear pink boxer shorts.

Halawa's prisoner uniforms are based on clothing from the 1800s, like these striped uniforms on Utah prisoners from 1885.
Halawa’s prisoner uniforms are based on clothing like this for Utah prisoners in 1885 clearly intended to shame inmates. Wikimedia Commons

Hawaii’s use of striped uniforms clearly violates the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva in 1955 and approved by the Economic and Social Council of the UN by resolutions adopted in 1977. Rule 17 (2) states:

“Every prisoner who is not allowed to wear his own clothing shall be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable for the climate and adequate to him in good health. Such clothing shall in no manner be degrading or humiliating.”

The Prison Rules of the European Union also prohibit uniforms like those used in Hawaii:

“20.1 Prisoners who do not have adequate clothing of their own shall be provided with clothing suitable for the climate.

“20.2 Such clothing shall not be degrading or humiliating.”

This rule places a new emphasis on prisoners’ dignity in respect of the clothing that must be provided. As it applies to all prisoners, it means that any uniforms that may be provided to sentenced prisoners should not be degrading and humiliating; uniforms that tend towards the caricature of the “convict” are therefore prohibited. Protection of prisoners’ dignity also underlies the requirement that prisoners who go outside the prison should not wear clothes that identify them as prisoners.

If Hawaii has trouble identifying staff from incarcerated persons, it is obvious that we have much deeper management problems that must be addressed.

A far better alternative is to prepare individuals to reenter the community with dignity, self-esteem, job skills and a good work ethic. Constantly reinforcing the “criminal” mindset only puts the community at risk.

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