Inmates are issued a starter pack of prison clothes upon arrival. Many would rather use their own clothes as a way to reclaim some power for themselves.
Prison officer Erik Hansen’s key ring jingles repeatedly as he unlocks and locks the many doors on the way into the Tunga department of Trondheim Prison. The security check in the entrance area gives airport security a run for its money.
Large open courtyards and lawns extend between the buildings. But nary a soul can be seen. In this high-security prison most inmates remain locked up most of the time.
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As an inmate you not only lose your freedom, but you become subject to strict social controls. The constraints placed on the inmates make life monotonous with little room for variety and choice. Many of the opportunities and arenas for expressing their own identity disappear and clothes become one of the few limited ways for inmates to express their identity and belonging.
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Clothing offsets prison control
In her master’s thesis in sociology at NTNU, Thea Kolloen studied how inmates use clothes to express their own identity within the limitations of daily prison life. Clothes are one of the few tools for affirming their identity.
“Inmates found prison underwear totally unacceptable. They thought it was insulting, humiliating and a symbol of something very unmasculine.”
“Clothes can offset some of the prison’s control over inmates. Dressing yourself your own way becomes a way to reclaim some power for yourself, “says Kolloen.
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“I’ve observed how prison affects an individual’s identity, and started this project by studying how inmates deal with the social control that jail imposes. I was interested in seeing how identity is created, both by the environment and by the inmates themselves. I used the symbolic meaning of clothing to look at how the inmates deal with the power that prison represents in terms of social control. I learned that they handle power in different ways,” Kolloen said.
Some inmates became resigned, while others distanced themselves from the social control and wanted to create their own identity in reaction to the power exercised over them.
Lots of clothing bans in prison
Many inmates see their personal clothes as representing normalcy and a link to their lives before and after serving time – as well as distancing them from what prison represents. But the prison’s dress code contains a lot of restrictions.
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“Even though the prison allows personal clothing, the guidelines limit what clothing items and effects inmates are allowed to bring with them. For example, the inmates can only have a certain number of garments in their cell. This has to do with safety rules related to fire hazards and cells needing to be uncluttered for searches,” Kolloen said.
Clothes with logos that may instil fear or that are offensive are also prohibited. These include Nazi symbols, logos associated with motorcycle clubs like the Hells Angels, and skulls. Symbols that promote criminal activity like cannabis are also forbidden.
Nor are inmates allowed to dye their hair or get tattoos while incarcerated. Clothing has to cover tattoos that are considered provocative.
Black is a club colour
“I don’t feel like I can have my identity in here, because a lot of times they say I can’t wear my clothes because people might get offended or scared. I think that’s totally ridiculous,” says one inmate interviewed by Kolloen.
Another interviewee belongs to a club whose symbols the prison does not allow.
“It was important for him to express his affiliation with the club and with his group of friends. So he wears clothes that express that belonging for him and that don’t contain the symbols that are prohibited by the prison,” Kolloen says.
“I just wear black. It’s the club colour,” he says.
“He said the clothes make him feel good because they represent something that means a lot to him. They also symbolize a club that’s illegal in prison and that connects his identity to something that exists on the outside. Clothes can give inmates a feeling of continuity to be themselves while they’re doing time,” says Kolloen.
Starter pack of prison clothes
When the inmates begin their sentence, they get a “starter pack” of prison clothes. It contains red jogging pants, t-shirts in various colours, socks – and underwear.
“Inmates found prison underwear totally unacceptable. They thought it was insulting, humiliating and a symbol of something very unmasculine,” says Kolloen.
Many inmates also rejected the red prison pants, but here there were some clear divisions. Some prisoners thought it was a good idea to use the red pants when they were working in prison. The trousers were like a work uniform, which are also common in many jobs outside the prison and are therefore perceived as normal. By using prison pants at work, they also saved on the wear and tear of their own clothes.
Jeans stand for normalcy and are the inmates’ preferred clothing when they have visitors.
Pants distinguish foreigners from Norwegians
The most significant distinction in terms of prison clothing was between foreign and Norwegian inmates. The non-Norwegians wore the red pants a lot.
According to Kolloen, this difference is probably related to finances and the fact that foreign inmates often have little or no network or family outside the prison walls who can assist them with clothing.
There are two ways to get clothes when you are in prison. Either someone from outside can bring you clothes, or you can order them online using a special prison-approved clothing catalogue.
Clothes brought into prison undergo a stringent inspection to check that the garments meet regulations. According to the inmates, there is a way to bypass this strict check. If you are among the few who are granted leave, you can return wearing new clothes. The clothing inspection in this case is not as strict as when clothes come in via the clothing depot, according to the informants.
When life is on hold
Whereas one group was very concerned with clothing as an identity marker, others didn’t care about making any kind of identity statement through their clothes. They had resigned themselves to the prison structure in a way, or they were “saving” their identity until they finished their sentence. They stated that their life was on hold while they were in prison, and that they kept their distance precisely by not revealing too much of themselves.
“This attitude can be interpreted as a way for inmates to distance themselves from the here and now. The informants believed that the inmates who didn’t care about expressing their identity by their clothing tended to be the ones who had long sentences,” Kolloen said.
“I’m just trying to avoid clothes with special meaning, so I have something to look forward to when I get out. I look at it as a bonus – I just want to do my time and get out,” said one of the sources in the study.
Part of Captivating Sociology book
Prison clothing has been minimally explored in Norwegian prison research. Kolloen’s study differs from other prison studies by focusing on the inmates’ identity, based on the importance of clothing for power and freedom.
Prisons have always fascinated Kolloen.
“Prison is a little hidden world apart from society that I wanted to know more about. I’m also interested more generally in marginalized groups and their connection to society,” she says.
She had some ideas about what it would be like to meet the inmates.
“I had to go through an unbelievable number of locked doors before I got to the visitor’s room, which made it clear that this was a high-security prison. I did come with preconceptions about who I was coming to meet and how it would be, and I was surprised at how pleasant and safe the meetings with the inmates were,” says Kolloen.
Kolloen’s study is one of the chapters in the book Fengslende sosiologi. Makt, straff og identitet i Trondheims fengsler (Captivating Sociology. Power, Punishment and Identity in Trondheim’s Prisons), recently released on 23 August.
The book contains twelve scientific, peer-reviewed chapters about prisons as a social phenomenon, both as part of and as an expression of society. The chapters were written by former master’s students and researchers, primarily from NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science. The editors are Johan Fredrik Rye, Professor of Sociology at NTNU, and Ingrid Rindal Lundeberg at the Uni Research Rokkan Centre.
You may like to read the book via Open access (in Norwegian with a summary in English) at https://press.nordicopenaccess.no/index.php/noasp/catalog/book/41
Useful to make research available
Johan Fredrik Rye, the book’s editor and advisor, says that the starting point for the research and the book was that some students at NTNU wanted to use a prison as a case in their studies.
“On any given day, a good 3600 inmates are locked up in Norwegian prisons, and we need to know more about them and what goes on there,” he says. “Throughout the study, we’ve tried to focus on the inmates’ perspectives, which is a typical sociological approach. We
wanted to give a voice to people at the bottom of the totem pole, individuals who are incarcerated. What are you experiencing? How do you create a life within a framework that brands you as unwanted in society? With this book, we wanted to pull together the research on this topic and make it available to a broader public,” says Rye.
The Norwegian Correctional Service – Northern Region has been very involved in the project and has facilitated the research.
Marit Wangsholm is senior advisor for the service’s northern region. She’s intrigued and flattered that students and researchers wanted to know more about prisons and prison life.
“Collecting that knowledge into a book makes it accessible, both for us in corrections and for everyone else. That’s good. These are narrow bands of society, but the information is exciting and useful for us,” she says.