ANNAPOLIS – They have been described as useless and dehumanizing, but black-and-white-striped prison uniforms are showing up more and more often in Maryland and across the nation.
In Maryland, prisoners in Carroll, Harford and St. Mary’s counties wear the old-fashioned style uniforms, which jail officials said help make inmates stand out from the general public.
“The visibility to officers is very high,” said Pamela Hurt, a sales representative for Robinson Textiles, a uniform supply company that has seen steady growth in the sale of striped outfits.
Montgomery County inmates wear stripes — gray and white or green and burgundy — only when they are working outside the jail. Other counties still dress their inmates in various solid colors, while most state prisoners do not have uniforms.
But those everyday outfits can pose problems, said supporters of the striped uniforms.
“The normal orange uniform is often worn by hunters in the area,” said Benny Hodges, director of the St. Mary’s Detention Center.
He said the bold black-and-white-striped uniforms present a “distinguishing kind of factor” that is necessary because a number of the prisoners are in work-release programs outside the prison.
St. Mary’s County uniforms have the letters “SMDC” in red on the back. Carroll County’s uniforms have a bright, bold “P” on the backs, while Harford County’s striped uniforms do not have any lettering.
But critics say the striped uniforms are needlessly dehumanizing.
“It doesn’t do anything,” said Talbot County Warden Larry DiNisio of the bold, striped outfits. “I don’t know what they do.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which often advocates for prisoners’ rights, has not yet challenged the striped uniforms in Maryland.
But it may take a look at the uniform policies after a recent controversy in Carroll County, where some inmates were sent to court hearings in the prison gear.
Appearing for trial in a prisoner’s uniform is “something I think the courts would rule as prejudicial,” said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.
“Everybody in this country has a right to have their punishment, guilt or innocence based on the trier of fact,” she said.
The ACLU and other groups challenged Carroll County Sheriff John Brown’s policy of sending some inmates to court in the uniforms. The dispute — jokingly dubbed “prison uniformgate” by one county judge — has been settled for now with an agreement to let inmates keep a set of civilian clothes at the county jail.
That policy, hammered out after a Feb. 11 meeting between Brown and the county’s circuit court judges, takes effect Monday.
“We objected to them being brought to court in the prison clothes,” said Judson Larrimore, assistant public defender for Carroll County.
“At all the court appearances if the prisoner requests to wear street clothes, he will be allowed to,” Larrimore said.
Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr., the administrative judge for Carroll County, said the agreement protects the prisoners’ rights while answering the sheriff’s safety concerns. By holding the prisoners’ clothes, Beck said, Brown can inspect them if needed.
“He’d have control over the clothes so people from the outside could not bring contraband sewed into the clothes,” said Beck, who agreed that defendants wearing prison uniforms in court was “kind of a decorum problem.”
But outside the courtroom, supporters say the old-fashioned striped uniform is an idea whose time has come.
“I don’t believe that black-and-white striped uniforms are used to dehumanize individuals,” said 1st Sgt. Rick Blair at the Washington County Detention Center.
Blair said he understood where Brown was coming from, since an escaped prisoner would probably be more easily identified in the black-and-white uniforms.
Lt. Steve Reecy, administrator of the jail in Minnehaha County, S.D., said the switch to black-and-white uniforms “was bound to come.”
His jail began using the striped uniforms last year. Like many who prefer them to solid-colored jumpsuits, he said many highway workers wear the orange uniforms that the prisoners used to wear. An escapee is more likely to be recognized in a striped uniform, he said.
Hurt, the uniform company saleswoman, said the visibility factor is helping drive sales of the striped uniforms.
“We have seen a steady growth in the sale of these garments throughout the country” since they came out about a year ago, Hurt said.
She said the Gardena, Calif., company sells the uniforms to many of the larger county jails throughout the country, including jails in California, Texas and Michigan.
-30- MARYLAND’S PRISON UNIFORMS: County
Orange Anne Arundel
Solid colors Calvert
Solid colors Caroline
Black-white striped Cecil
Green Charles Minimum security Blue Medium security
Green Maximum security Orange Dorchester
Orange Frederick Awaiting trial
Black-white striped Howard General population Gray Confined inmates Orange Women
Blue INS prisoners
Dark blue Kent
Orange Montgomery In-jail
Green Outside workers
Green-burgundy striped Prince George’s General population Orange Kitchen workers
White Queen Anne’s
Blue St. Mary’s
Black-white striped Somerset