Thursday, March 25, 2010


A subject that annoys our families, signals our social status, reveals our financial circumstances and offers us a small window of autonomy. Who would have thought that choosing what to wear was an act that could contain so much meaning?

As part of our deliberate dependency, the prison service must obviously see us clothed, "sufficient for warmth and health". For most of my sentence this has meant jeans, T shirts, striped shirts and denim jackets as the predominant uniform. Note that this is for men only, as women prisoners have always been allowed to wear their own clothing.

Long term prisoners were generally given some concessions to break this blandness. Often, this only extended to modifying the official issue. Shortening the shirt's sleeves, attempting to bleach jeans, decorating jackets, these were all efforts expended to assert some small individuality. Or dignity; jeans that were so loose that they were held up with string were not uncommon.

As time has passed and reformist forays were attempted, we were allowed to wear some of our own clothing. This can annoy our families a touch, as in practice this means we have to persuade kind souls out there to buy stuff for us, or send us the money to buy it ourselves. At prison pay levels it would take an age to clothe oneself without such largess.

For me, clothing allows me to carve out a small area of freedom and autonomy. Rather than dressing myself in the prison-issue garb each day, I get to chose from my small selection of civilian clothing. As I hate jeans, this tends to reduce itself to a question of which trousers and shirt to select, though I could opt for the snazzy T-shirt I've been sent - it declares "Blog Off" on the front and has the blog's URL plastered across the back!

Such choices may seem incredibly petty to people living in freedom, but in a closed institution where every aspect of life is regulated then having the choice of what to wear can be a significant exercise in autonomy. It helps to maintain that inherent dignity that accrues from being able to make choices, to escape being ordered by another into a certain dress.

I extend this burst of freedom by insisting on washing my own clothing, avoiding the communal (prisoner operated) laundry service. In this way I get to decide what to wash, what to wear, to my timetable and not that of the institution.

With my trusty plastic bucket, Ariel Hand-wash powder (bought from your donations, thank you) and vigorous scrubbing, I fight a daily battle against grubbiness. Drying is more ad-hoc, my cell being transversed by washing lines. I enjoy this autonomy and hate abrogating it to the prison.

That it leaves my cell looking like a collision between a stationers and a laundry is a small price to pay.

And no, I don't overlook the irony of being dependent on other people to buy me clothing which I then use to exercise freedom. I didn't say it wasn't complicated...


  1. Err, why the dig at women prisoners? yes, we could wear what we like, but i used to save my own stuff for visits, the rest of the time wear prison issue t-shirts, jogging bottoms, why dress up to just sit around putting the world to rights with your mates? Whenever i've gone to visit a man in prison, he always has his own clothes and not been wearing prison issue.

  2. A friend of mine has got a prison issue shirt (stripes an all) I think she said it was lifted from one of the London prisons, and she loves it, says it is really comfortable and she sleeps in it at night!

    Big big ups Ben, you blog is so cool, hang on in there. We are all rooting for you, much love xx

  3. Good for you, carving out a little bit of freedom in a world of control.