Black and white “prison stripes” have been donned by minimum security inmates at one Santa Clara County jail for more than a decade.
Now, advocates from the Bill Wilson Center are trying to change that.
Amanda Clifford, a policy and advocacy associate at the center, said switching from stripes to a solid colored uniform at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas would minimize trauma and stigma for these inmates – many of whom are considered less dangerous and pose the least amount of harm to the community.
“I think people don’t realize how it’s sometimes the small quality of life issues that have the biggest impact,” Clifford said, listing examples like uniforms, non-torn shower shoes and access to interesting books that aren’t beat up. “While system change is definitely important, it’s also small quality of life issues that are important, too.”
After the Bill Wilson Center’s newly-formed Policy and Advocacy Committee suggested the change for 93 minimum security incarcerated women, Clifford found it would cost $4,500 in county funds to swap out clothing for 100 inmates.
The center’s CEO Sparky Harlan and board member Micaél Estremera testified at the Board of Supervisors meeting last week before the board unanimously agreed to consider the options.
“As soon as I heard about it, I thought this is a no brainer,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman told San José Spotlight. “It’s something inexpensive that can be done right away, and would help reduce some of the stigmatizing and the stereotyping that goes along with the current striped clothing.”
The potential uniform change comes during an era of countywide jail reform.
“I’m glad (this story will) let the public know that what we’re doing to help improve the way these these women feel about themselves, when they look in the mirror and when they have family come to visit them,” Wasserman added.
Clifford and Harlan first learned that low-level offenders were dressed in black and white stripes during a tour in 2017. Shocked, the explanation they were given at the time was, “Well, they don’t complain.”
“They’re in jail, they’re not going to complain,” Harlan said. “They’re just trying to get by and not make waves. What prisoner’s going to say, ‘Oh, excuse me, I think this is demeaning’?”
According to a Mercury News story, black and white stripes were reintroduced to replace green shirts and blue jeans in 2007. Clifford said a minimum security inmate had recently escaped, and they weren’t identified because the uniform was apparently similar to a California Department of Transportation worker.
The black and white stripes were used in U.S. prisons in the 1800s and are often associated with chain gangs. However, most correctional facilities stopped using striped uniforms in the 1940s and 1950s, according to a 2000 New York Times article.
The uniforms were stopped, in part, due to progressive thought about how they affect inmates.
“We feel a sense of difference when putting on any uniform, be it a lab coat, a police uniform or a prison uniform,” Abraham Rutchick, associate professor of psychology at California State University Northridge, explained in Index on Censorship magazine in 2017. “The more powerful the clothing, the more abstract the thinking and the less powerful the clothing, the more the wearer would not be thinking in broad terms, but focusing on survival and day-to-day issues.”
That’s what led Clifford, Harlan and other Bill Wilson Center advocates to push for change in Santa Clara County, despite their lack of history dealing with issues of incarceration.
“Advocacy is what we do, not just services,” Harlan said. “One of our guiding principles is that you can change one person’s life by doing work with them and case management, and if that doesn’t work, you can go and try to change the system to impact a broader group of people.”
But despite any amount of advocacy, the implementation of new uniforms will ultimately be up to Sheriff Laurie Smith. The Board of Supervisors may hold the pursestrings of her office’s budget and recommend action, but it is her job to decide if and how the change would work.
And since the color of inmate uniforms often dictate security level and which inmates are allowed to be around each other, sheriff’s officials say there are aspects of safety and protocol at Elmwood to consider.
“The Office of the Sheriff is actively examining the practicability and associated system impacts regarding a uniform change for our female minimum-security inmate population,” Deputy Jessica Gabaldon said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The Office of the Sheriff is always amenable to changes that will positively impact our inmate population and their families. In collaboration with the Board of Supervisors and other stakeholders, we will examine how such changes will impact safety and security and the overall jail operation.”
No matter what the sheriff decides to do, Harlan said this is the beginning of Bill Wilson Center’s work to change minimum security women’s uniforms. The goal is to ultimately get rid of the black and white stripes for the minimum security men held at Elmwood, too.
“We’re just trying to take baby steps,” Harlan said. “We’re hopeful that it will expand to the men too, because there’s no reason we need to put any prisoners in stripes in this county.”