My skin is contraband: How prisons are hostile to women visitors

Teaching in prisons opened my eyes to how unfair the system's rules can be, especially for women

Published August 14, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
(Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

I pull on a long black-and-white mottled skirt, a black t-shirt, and black flats. Each of these items of clothing is carefully considered. The skirt covers my legs and tattoos. The shirt is loose, but not too loose, and covers other tattoos. The shoes are unlikely to set off the metal detector. It’s 65 degrees out and so I risk a light sweater. Here I might run into problems. It’s voluminous and has a cowl neck, both of which might raise suspicions that I’m smuggling in contraband. It also has a meshed back which, though I’m wearing a shirt under it, may still be too suggestive of the possibility of seeing flesh that it will be nixed.

I’m getting dressed to go to prison. Since 2006, I’ve been involved in education programs in prisons across the country. Over the years, I’ve devised a couple of outfits unlikely to get me held up at security. Getting ready for prison is a sort of bizarro-Halloween. Instead of sexy teacher, my costume is teacher-who-looks-like-a-cross-between-a-plush-polar-bear-and-a-beanbag. In my professional life, I usually opt for something more middle-of-the-road.  Today, as I dress, I feel a minor twinge of embarrassment about how unflattering my outfit is. But I always go full Puritan. As a woman, it’s the best way to keep from being hassled by the correctional officers (COs) at security.

Getting into prison in America is far too easy. Unless you are a visitor who wants to get in and get back out again, in which case it is too hard. Prisons are built away from urban centers and are poorly served by public transport. I’ve never had less than an hour-and-a-half drive to any of the prisons I’ve worked in. Getting to Rikers Island in New York City was by far the most difficult. I took a bus, to a subway, to another bus, then got picked up by a colleague and driven to the prison block I was teaching in. The whole trip took five hours round trip, not including the time it took me to do my work there.

Once at a prison, it’s hard to get through security. Things I’ve personally been busted for are: a quarter in my pocket, plastic buttons on my turtleneck, and, I shit you not, walking too heavily through the metal detector. I committed these particular infractions at the first prison I ever visited, Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Norfolk. Norfolk, as it’s called colloquially, is a medium-security prison roughly 22 miles southwest of Boston. There, when you set off the metal detector, all the people who are visiting at the same time as you must wait while a CO brings you to a private room. Alone with the CO, you are told to unhook your bra, presumably so that anything hidden inside will fall out. For the same reason you are to turn the elastic on your underwear inside out. The CO wands you and pats you down. When this happened to me I was scared, not knowing how invasive the search would be. I also felt guilty because my search delayed about a dozen people who had limited time to visit their incarcerated friends and family. At Norfolk I started tiptoeing through metal detectors, and I retain this habit ten years later.

Teaching in prisons presents its own complications. I’ve been forbidden from bringing in standard tools of my trade such as staples, paper clips, and pens that aren’t transparent. I spoke with Arminta Fox, who used to coordinate classes that brought together students from Drew University and Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in the New Jersey prison. She told me that she and others had been busted for bringing in spiral-bound notebooks, pens with springs in them, and the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

Over and above all of these things, the dress code is, for me, the most difficult thing to negotiate. Each facility has its own list of rules about what you can wear. I’ve always found the lists to be overwhelming. For example, when picking out something to wear on your bottom half at Norfolk, you have to make sure that it does not have metal, holes, excessive pockets, or drawstrings, that it is not too tight or too baggy, sheer, revealing, transparent, layered, wraparound, bibbed, camouflage, ripped, torn, missing buttons, spandex, worn for exercise, at all similar to what people who work or live in prison wear, at all similar to what gang members wear, or more than three inches above the knee. Also please be sure that you don’t wear “wind pants” once you find out what wind pants are.

Once you have picked out a bottom that meets the above criteria, you will need to select underwear, a top, socks, and shoes that meet similar lists of criteria. Then you must vet the rest of your body to make sure you have not left contraband on it. Remember that your hair extensions are subject to search and that if you plan on wearing a religious medal to Rikers, it must be “no more than two inches in diameter hung on a chain of one quarter-inch or less in diameter and no longer than 24 inches.”

When you get to the prison you may find that preparation and a will to comply can only get you so far. Whether your pants are too tight or too loose, for example, is entirely up to the discretion of whichever CO is working security at that time. Some COs tend to have short memories and short tempers, so how they decide on your pants differs from visit to visit and seems to depend on how shitty their day has been.

You will also run up against unwritten rules that you will learn only through word of mouth or by breaking them. A pervasive example of this is the underwire bra. None of the prisons that I have visited mention underwires in their dress code. But wearing one will probably set off the metal detector, subjecting you to a search that, depending on the institution, varies in its degradation.

The burden of prison dress codes falls disproportionately on women. I have not been able to locate any demographic studies providing gender breakdowns of who visits prisons. Those studying prisons tend to focus on the men and women inside of them. But, if you’ll allow for a bit of anecdotal evidence, women far outnumber men in the waiting room according to my colleagues, my students in and outside of prisons, and yours truly. Because women visit prisons more than men, women have to negotiate the vagaries of prison dress codes more than men.

In addition, and more concretely, each prison dress code has clauses that exclusively regulate clothing typically considered feminine. Take, for example, the prison I currently visit, Columbia River Correctional Facility (CRCI). CRCI is a minimum-security prison in the outer reaches of Portland, Oregon. As far as prisons go, it’s one of the least horrible. The prisoners call it Prisneyland because of its relatively relaxed style. I have been told by both a CO and several inmates that the dynamic between COs and prisoners is a lot like that between babysitters and children. One prisoner compared CRCI favorably with other prisons he’s been at because, at CRCI, when guards want to establish dominance they do so by talking down to you rather than beating you.

Outside the grounds of CRCI stands a sandwich board detailing the dress code. Visitors cannot wear hats. Nor can they wear blue denim since this is what the prisoners wear. CRCI forbids visitors from wearing smart watches and bringing in cell phones to stymie prisoners’ potential attempts to access any information through their visitors.

The rest of the sign is dedicated to controlling prisoners’ visual access to the human form. Visitors cannot wear skirts, dresses, or shorts more than two inches above the middle of the knee. A rare editorial note on the sign emphasizes that “this applies to all visitors,” an ostensible attempt to signal that the dress code forbids the bearing of flesh equally on the part of men and women. The sign also forbids tight-fitting or revealing clothing as well as leggings. There is no attempt to signal that these latter expectations apply equally to men and women.

The Oregon Department of Corrections states that the intent of the dress code is “to maintain a positive environment for all inmates and visitors.” It goes on to say “visitors are encouraged to wear clothing that is conservative in nature in order to maintain a respectful visiting environment.” The first time I was volunteering, however, a CO offered a different explanation. “A lot of these guys haven’t seen a woman in a while,” he said. The real point of the dress code, from his point of view, was to keep women’s skin from stirring up a sexual response from the prisoners.

Another sign hung on the controlled entrance to CRCI lists contraband other than clothing: “narcotics, narcotic paraphernalia, weapons, ammunition, explosives, controlled medication, escape devices, money including negotiable instruments, intoxicants, tobacco, or gambling proceeds.” The signs outside of CRCI announce bans on things that are either criminal in themselves or that have the potential to cause criminal or disruptive behavior. Female skin is one of these things. As surely as the ban on ammunition betrays a spectral fear of violent uprising, the ban on female skin hints at the phantasm of sexual assault.

The Rikers Island website explains that the purpose of the dress code is to maintain a safe and “family friendly” environment. Certain swaths of human skin are, by deduction, family-hostile and compromise Rikers’ T.G.I.Friday’s-like atmosphere. Like the signs at CRCI, the Rikers website hints at an association between contraband materials and contraband skin. It states, “overly suggestive clothing and clothing in which contraband and non-permissible items can be hidden are not permitted.” Visitors must wear only one layer of clothing – revealing enough of their body that COs can perceive potential dangers but not so much that their body creates additional dangers.

At Rikers, the human body begins to be dangerous three inches above the knee. No one will be admitted wearing clothing with hems, holes, or rips in this hazardous area. Human skin continues to be dangerous in the torso. Visitors are not allowed to wear tops or dresses that expose the chest, stomach or back. Even the outlines of the human form must be obscured in this area. “Spandex leggings” are considered in the same way as skin itself and must be dressed as the skin is dressed, by something with a hem no higher than three inches above the knee.

Hidden in prison dress codes is a paternalistic impulse to control, denigrate, harass and abuse women visitors under the pretext of protecting them. A particularly poignant  example of this comes from a woman whom I will call Jennifer to protect her anonymity. Jennifer visited her mother, “Angie,” several times in the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). WCCW is a medium-security prison in Gig Harbor, Washington, noted for its relatively humane treatment of inmates. Among other programs, the prison has a Residential Parenting Program that allows some pregnant inmates with shorter sentences to keep their children with them after giving birth.

Jennifer visited accompanied by her child, who she was breastfeeding at the time. The first time Jennifer breastfed at WCCW, a CO told Angie that Jennifer would have to cover herself up. Jennifer did her best to be discreet as she fed her child but did not cover up because her child would not eat if covered. Babies know nothing about compliance. On her way out of the prison, a pregnant CO told her again that she needed to cover up because “there are men who work here.” The CO expressed that Jennifer slightly exposing her breast was like walking into a gas station puffing on a Marlboro – you might not cause an explosion, but best practices say don’t take that risk.

After a subsequent visit, during which she also breastfed, Jennifer was confronted by a male CO she described as “giant,” who told her to cover up. She asked him if WCCW had anything in writing that breastfeeding while uncovered was forbidden, to which he responded that he was sure they did. Jennifer asked to see the rule and suggested he cross-reference it with Washington’s breastfeeding laws, which ensure women’s right to breastfeed at any time or place without having to cover up. At this point, the CO told her to have a good day and left her alone, leaving Jennifer shaken. The COs at WCCW had singled Jennifer out, repeatedly badgered her, and attempted to intimidate her on the groundless assertion that the Department of Corrections did not allow uncovered breastfeeding and that doing such was a provocation of the men in the prison.

Arbitrary enforcement of prison dress codes means that you will most likely not be able to avoid being hassled by a CO. The kind of harassment you might receive will depend on who you are. In my experience, volunteers generally receive better treatment than prisoners’ friends and family. Visiting women of color experience added sartorial demands and therefore are open to more harassment than their white counterparts. Fox shared with me stories of women of color being told to remove bobby pins and bandanas they wore to conform to professional expectations that skew in favor of tamed hair that is generally more easily achieved by white women.

The kind of treatment you’ll receive for an infraction also depends on where you are visiting. If you wear an underwire bra at CRCI, you’ll be wanded and scolded, sometimes gently and sometimes quite rudely. At Rikers Island, many women visitors have alleged being subjected to vaginally penetrative searches for infractions such as wearing an underwire or otherwise setting off the metal detector.

When I spoke to Fox and Jennifer, both made sure to tell me about positive experiences that they had had with COs bending rules for them in humane ways. Fox, a religious scholar, described being allowed to bring olives and nice cheeses to a class on the centuries-old Christian practice of Love Feasts. At closing ceremonies for a class, COs raised no objections when students from Drew entered wearing uniform clothing that mirrored (without replicating) prisoner dress in a show of solidarity. Jennifer noted that COs allowed her mother to attend her sister’s funeral, to stay longer at the funeral than she was technically allowed to, and to be hugged despite rules against contact with prisoners. I, too, have had positive experiences, particularly at CRCI, where many COs are generally friendly and are more interested in enforcing the spirit rather than the letter of the rules.

The arbitrary nature of dress code enforcement, however, means you’ll never be able to predict how you will be treated. Dressing myself for prison is an absurdist act in which I pantomime control. In my modest clothes, I’m less likely to get hassled by the COs than my colleagues who commit playful acts of rebellion by risking skinny jeans at each visit. No matter what any of us wear, though, we’re all on a spectrum of vulnerability, subject to rules that are at the same time too specific and too vague, enforced at the discretion of changeable individuals. The stated and implied purpose of these rules is to protect visitors from the inmates, but I’ll say that, in my experience, mistreatment comes much more often at security checkpoints than in the visiting room.

By Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher

Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher is a writer and award-winning historian. Her work has been published in Speculum, Journal of Medieval History, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and the History News Network. Follow her on Twitter @TVannSprecher

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