In prison, clothing is a symbol of hierarchy. Inmates on North Carolina’s death row wear red; close-security inmates don brown jumpers, and the lightest grade of detention comes with green outfits.
The authorities, of course, get uniforms of their own – and the state is getting ready to tinker with the formula, giving correctional officers a more “professional” style.
Among the elements of the new line by the N.C. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, set to debut next spring: an airy new material, long sleeves and clip-on ties for some 13,000 employees.
And while prisons might not be known for sartorial innovation, there’s a lot of thought behind the new duds, which North Carolina inmates will sew together at state-run prison factories in the next few months, according to prison officials.
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Designed by a panel of the division’s employees, the new gray-and-black uniform is meant to bring a fancier feel than the all-blue fatigues that have dominated the state’s correctional-officer fashion for the last few years.
“I think you would use the word ‘utilitarian,’ ” to describe the current get-ups, said Sam Dotson, assistant superintendent for Rutherford Correctional Center and a former officer himself.
Some of the older uniforms also had grown ragged and mismatched due to fading, according to prison officials. The new design also eliminates metal from the uniform.
The new cuts are something of a throwback to the uniforms of yesteryear. Neckties, in fact, were part of the uniform through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, said Dotson, who remembers wearing a Velcro-type tie on duty.
“It was a more professional look,” he said. “We wore them all the time.”
But couldn’t a tie become a weapon in the hands of an inmate?
“If they did get a hold of it, it just pops right off,” Dotson said. And once it’s off, a tie is no more dangerous than a T-shirt or a sock, he said.
“Choking,” he explained, “is choking.”
Cordelia Clark, a retired administrator of Lanesboro Correctional Institution, said employees tended to want two things in new clothing: a business-like look and a design that can stand up to the demands of work behind bars.
“If it’s professional-looking and functional, my hat’s off to the department,” Clark said.
The department still hasn’t decided whether officers will wear the clip-on ties at all times, or whether the ties might be removed for patrols and other active duty.
Employees also currently can accessorize with one ring per hand and an agency baseball cap, although the old formal-style police caps have been phased out, according to a rules document. Plain toboggans are allowed, too, and a brass whistle is standard, though the rules likely will change next year.
In some ways, the new fashion thrust lines up with a broader national trend. Many departments are opting for better performance through improved fabrics, according to Mike Reed, marketing director for the Bob Barker Company, which produces and sells detention wares in Fuquay-Varina.
“You’re seeing a lot more stain-resistant fabrics, odor-resistant fabrics,” Reed said. The stretchiness of Spandex-and Lycra-interwoven fabrics also are growing popular for correctional officers, he said.
Some detention systems are looking to get more casual, incorporating polo shirts into their employees’ closets, Reed said. That’s not the case in North Carolina prisons, where the necktie will rejoin guns and badges as symbols of authority.