Khaki Jumpsuits Are the New Black

Washington's prisons may add insult to injury by stopping Bugle Boy, Ralph Lauren, and Levi at the gate.

The economic crisis has prompted just about every government agency to cut costs both big and small. State Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail outlined some of the changes his agency will implement in a January 6 letter to family and friends of offenders. The DOC plans to close one prison, Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, and may, if Gov. Gregoire’s budget proposals are successful, scale back its supervision of people released from prison. It’s also taking a smaller step, but one that will be felt widely inside the state’s prisons: “In order to save the utility costs associated with unit laundries,” Vail writes, “we plan to eliminate personal clothing for inmates.”

The state’s Deputy Director of Prisons, Dan Pacholke, explains that prisoners are issued khaki uniforms, including pants and work shirts, which they are required to wear as they do their prison jobs or attend various educational and social-service programs. But they can wear their own clothes the rest of the time, whether they’re in their cells or chatting with acquaintances in visiting rooms. They buy their outfits from several DOC vendors such as Eastbay, which advertises its wares in a catalogue distributed to inmates. Jeans, dress shirts, and sneakers are among the items that have been available.

No longer: Pacholke says that the DOC will soon tell inmates they can’t buy new clothes, and then, in perhaps six months time, will prohibit the clothes they already own as well. Pacholke says the savings from not having to launder the clothes will amount to $1 million a year. As an added benefit, he says, it’s saving energy.

Nevertheless, Pacholke concedes, “I don’t expect it to be an overwhelmingly popular change,” noting that inmates say having their own clothes allows them to feel like individuals. Still, he adds, it’s a change that saves money without affecting public safety. But Paul Wright, a former Washington state prisoner and editor of Prison Legal News, asks: “How does regimenting and destroying individuality prepare people to re-enter society?”

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