Black and white stripes are the new orange

Halawa Correctional Facility reverts to 19th century uniform practices.

Manjari Fergusson

Halawa Correctional Facility’s recent decision to put inmates in striped uniforms, instead of in solid colors, has been derided by prison reform advocates, but was a decision largely based on safety, according to the Department of Public Safety (DPS). Striped uniforms are very distinct and help separate inmates from members of the public and prison staff.

Which is exactly the problem, according to Kat Brady, Coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons. Brady believes the striped uniforms signify a step backwards for Hawaii’s justice system.

“I am saddened by the way we are treating our imprisoned brothers at Halawa. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we started focusing on people’s assets instead of always highlighting their deficits?” asks Brady. “The stripes are a way to reinforce ‘you are a criminal’ in the minds of the men.”

The striped change reflects a wider phenomenon that has taken place in jails around the country, including Saginaw County, Michigan, which switched to stripes in July because of the popularity of the Netflix prison show Orange is the New Black.

Columbia County Jail has also switched to the striped uniforms because it would make inmates more recognizable if they escaped.

Striped uniforms go back to the Auburn Prison in Cayuga County, New York where, during the 19th century, they were used to easily distinguish inmates from members of the public. They were also used as a means of humiliating prisoners and breaking their spirits.

By 1904, the uniforms were considered a “badge of shame.” The New York Prison Department decided the constant humiliation to prisoners was unhealthy and abolished the practice.

The striped uniforms at Halawa come in different colors that denote different levels of incarceration. Red and white stripes mean closed custody, blue and white stripes mean protective custody, green and white stripes mean workline, while black and white stripes are for the general population.

A DPS spokesperson said no other wardens have said they are adopting uniform changes.