Book Review: Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality

Juliet Ash
New York: I.B. Tauris (2010) ISBN 978-1-85043-894-6

Reviewed by Sophie Beaumont
Intern – Women’s Strategy, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:
Sophie joined the Corrections Women’s Strategy team as part of the 2017 Summer Intern Programme. She completed her MA in Criminology at Victoria University in 2017. Her research focused on how women are depicted in women’s magazines and discussed trends found in images within the context of rape culture in New Zealand. Sophie contributed to a range of work for the Women’s Strategy team, including researching and drafting an options paper on clothing within women’s prisons.

Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality explores the different iterations of prison uniforms, internationally and across genders, from the late nineteenth century to the time of publication (in 2010). Ash takes the perspectives of those who have worn the clothes and those who have issued them and contextualises them in historical movements of both punishment and reform.

The book presents both an anthology and a critique of historic and modern prison clothing. The first four chapters are focused on the past, giving insights into the uniforms (or lack thereof) from the late-1800s up to the 1990s. The fifth chapter focuses specifically on uniforms within English prisons from 1950-1990, chronicling prison dress through post-war clothing rationing to the model of non-compulsory prison clothing for women (introduced in 1971) and men (introduced in 1991).  Contemporary prison clothing is covered in the penultimate chapter and an overview and analysis of current practices from around the world is given. The book concludes with an analysis of media portrayals and art made by people in prison that captures their perceptions of identity within an institution.

The text draws from a multitude of international jurisdictions, though it does tend to reference models from the United Kingdom most frequently. This is understandable given the author is based in the United Kingdom and it is where the majority of the first-hand information about prison clothing has been collected.

Particularly interesting are the links the author makes between attitudes towards crime within society and prison clothing. The book shows that with periods of reform, uniforms in prisons become more in line with regular clothing and when jurisdictions swing towards highly punitive mentalities prison clothing becomes an overt symbol of this. Insights and analysis like this reflect the criminological undertones of the text and make the book a good resource for those involved in decisions around clothing/property in prisons. A key takeaway for all Corrections staff is that the mind-sets driving projects are reflected in what is delivered and this has the potential to inhibit, rather than enhance outcomes for people in prison.

The overall message of the text is that clothing goes far beyond the literal; it is framed as an expression of individuality, key to shaping and maintaining one’s identity. The importance of recognising and being responsive to the more abstract needs of those in prison is meaningfully highlighted. It is a good read and recommended for anyone interested in prison clothing or more general change within the prison environment.