This blog post started with one simple question, asked by a colleague: “Did you know that female prisoners don’t have to wear uniforms in prison as it may affect their self esteem?"
This question triggered a research project that not only exposed gender inequality within prisons but also within the sentencing structure (more about that in our next blog). It began by reading through the PSO 4800: Guidance notes on gender specific standards focusing on woman prisoners, a document written against the background of the new Gender Equality Duty (April 2007), to see what rules apply directly to woman. I would like to say that I’ve conducted a thorough comparison between the guidance notes for men and woman but I couldn’t find one for men specifically. There was an information booklet, written by the Ministry of Justice, for male prisoners and young offenders, but does not have the same format, or detail, as the PSO so any comparison would be futile.
Subsection 3 of Category G: ‘Day to day living’ focuses on the property and clothing of female prisoners. Within this section, which takes reference from Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS) Standard, states that 'most male prisoners wear prison issue clothing and exchange dirty for clean from the prison laundry whereas women should be allowed to wear their own clothing?'
The reasoning behind this decision was that: ‘Women do not wear uniform and have not for many years. It is generally recognized that part of the rehabilitation for many women prisoners involves the ability to maintain and raise self-esteem. Self-esteem is linked to many women with personal appearance. Many women will want to have regular changes to clothing, to have varied clothing, to use make up and dress their hair.
This means that women need greater amount of clothing than men and thus will need access to more property – including toiletries - particularly lifers and women serving long sentences.’
Whilst we agree with needing access to more toiletries in prison, particularly for hygiene reasons during the menstrual cycle, the idea that appearance is less important to a person’s self esteem if they are male is ludicrous. Even more nonsensical is that men are given the opportunity to wear their own clothing only when earned under an incentive and earned privileges scheme. It’s not just the inequality of this decision that infuriates me but, as the link between clothing and identity has long been established, it seems that the prison service is saying that males’ rights are less than that of a female. In a paper entitled ‘Clothing, Identity and the Embodiment of Age’, Julia Twigg expands more on what sociologists such as Veblen (1889) and Simmel (1904) have previously explored, that clothing is more than simply apparel and actually helps a person define class identity. This belief was expanded on by Fine and Leopold (1993), Polhemus (1994) and Evans (1997) who looked into the use of clothes as a means of self expression, self realisation, stabilising identity and registering belonging.
Nowadays, we have modernised the prison uniform to consist of grey trousers, sweatshirts and jumpers with prison issued underwear and socks. In November 2013 Chris Grayling, who was then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice but has since been moved to Transport Secretary, announced that all convicted male prisoners are to be banned from watching violent and sexually explicit films as part of a crackdown on perks. The article fails to mention if females will be treated the same way, but as female prisoners are mentioned later in the article, it’s safe to assume that this isn’t a rule for all.
Of course, traditionally, prison uniform was about establishing uniformity. Women in UK jails have not been required to wear uniforms as research found they were better behaved when allowed to wear their own clothes. However, in his speech to parliament, MP Philip Davies revealed that supporting research conducted by the Ministry of Justice was ‘so deficient it was not even published’. If it has not been proven to be true, how can it be enforced? Prisons should not run on hearsay but cold, hard facts. By taking away the prisoners clothes, they remove the person’s sense of identity and turn them into a non person, therefore helping to institutionalise them. By segregating prisoner’s rights by their gender, the HMPS standards are sending out a strong message – that male prisoners are not valued as highly as female.
We are not asking for prisons to throw out uniforms, or that prisons should not allow clothing be used as an incentive, but that there should be equality between the sexes. Both male and female inmates should be either in uniform or in casual clothes.