Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been produced nationally and internationally. She is co-founder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehabilitation centers in Pittsburgh. She’s on the MFA faculty at Chatham University, and is a 2018 Equal Justice Resident at Santa Fe Art Institute. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays about her work in jails and prisons.
What We Wear to Prison
Here is what we wear to prison:
These are the ways they will kill us, we are told. Our students, that is. They will grab our beautiful silk scarves and choke us. They will use the heavy metal beads of our statement necklaces to bash our heads in; pull us by the hood, grab a drawstring from a jacket. You have to think about these things now, they tell us. Always stay vigilant, they tell us. Some of these guys are monsters, they tell us.
We leave our prison training deflated, when only hours before we were wide-eyed new teachers, fresh with idealism and anticipation about how poetry might save lives. Never mind what we will teach. What will we wear?
In addition to the things that we’ve been told are weapons disguised as accessories, we’re also not allowed to wear:
Skirts that fall above the shin (“tea-length” my grandmother would say)
Pants with elastic waistbands
Anything solid red, pink, or orange (the color of the uniforms that prisoners must wear)
Denim pants “colored or otherwise”
Branded logos, except for those of sports teams
Anything “deemed revealing or inappropriate by the correctional officer on duty”
We scour our closets, taking photos of potential outfits, texting one another. Will this one pass the test, we ask. Does this seem revealing, we ponder, though we are wearing turtleneck sweaters and button-up oxfords. We’re not sure. We still look like women under these cardigans and shapeless tunics. We still look like we have bodies, which is what we fear is disallowed.
The first night of poetry class arrives.
I settle on a floor-length dress that doesn’t touch any part of my torso or chest. It resembles a nun’s habit, and my mother is fond of saying, “I see you’re trying to repel men now” when I wear it to dinner. It seems appropriate in its masking of my body, blocking any suggestion of a curve.
I’m escorted to my classroom by an education-unit employee, James. He’s in his mid-40s, a biker. He tells me the dress is a poor choice.
See how it brushes against the ground when you walk? That’s not good. You wouldn’t believe what winds up on the floor here. And let me tell you what I was told when I started working here 20 years ago. You know who has AIDS in here? Everybody but you. Now you wouldn’t believe what comes out of these guys’ bodies. Truly. Never seen anything like it. Don’t take chances with brushing that shit on the bottom of your dress.
Five minutes later, James tells me his entire dating history before class begins. I don’t like sleeping alone, he tells me. Everyone here is lonely.
Five years later, and I am meeting with the Inmate Programming Coordinator to discuss potential expansions of our program. I’ve been teaching creative writing in jails and prisons all over the city for the last 260 weeks. Sometimes I am admitted into the facilities, and sometimes I am denied. Each facility has different regulations and strange specifics. It’s hard to keep track of them.
Today, I’ve chosen to wear something particularly conservative, because I know that the warden might attend the meeting, and I’d like to appear as straight and narrow as possible. I’ve only met the warden once. It was in his office, a cavernous room with an enormous desk, entirely bare except for the thick Bible sitting square in its center. I’ve dug out some old wide-leg wool slacks from the back of my closet; a silk shell; a dark jacket; sensible shoes. I don’t look like a poet. Perfect.
The warden doesn’t end up attending the meeting, but a few other correctional officers stop in, wondering what we’re discussing.
“This is Sarah,” the coordinator announces. “The best part about her is that she’s never managed to adhere to dress code. Not even once! How long you been working here, again?”
“Five years,” I manage to mumble.
“Five years! Not once have I seen her in dress code!”
Noticing the blush in my cheeks and the stress in my forehead, he pats my leg. “That’s a good thing! We like that around here.” He winks.
Back at home, I scour the dress code, read every single sentence, make sure I have the most updated document. I am completely within the dress code. But he’s right, I still have a body.
Eventually, I buy a pair of baggy, sand-colored linen pants, a sports bra, and a black, crew-neck sweatshirt that I keep in the trunk of my car in case I am turned away at any of the facilities. These items of clothing are within regulation at all the facilities I visit. They don’t entirely erase the shape of my body, but they hide it well enough. No one can claim I’m trying to look pretty wearing these shapeless, colorless blobs of K-Mart fabric.
I am pretending that I try to follow the dress-code.
I am pretending that I am a good girl, a rule-follower.
I am pretending that prison doesn’t taunt me and tease me, that it doesn’t make me want to get away with something.
The truth is, I am always hyper-aware of the presentation of my body when I teach in the prison. I think about my body when I teach on my university campus, too, but not as precisely and not as strategically. The truth is, I want to look nice for the guys I teach in prison, because I know that the sight of a free woman is so rare. I have lots of complicated feelings about this desire to reward my students with the sight of me, but I still do it. It’s a catwalk of shame and contradiction in my mind.
I’m trying to stay within the dress code, but just within it. I want to look good. I know I’m on display, and so is everyone else here. That’s what prison is: surveillance, judgment, watcher and watched, performative roles. The guys in my class are performing for me, too. We all know it. And we pretend that it’s not happening.
This isn’t something to admit when I’m training new teachers, when I’m seeking grants to fund the program, when I’m explaining to the warden why our program is so effective, when I’m at conferences with other, more radical, more makeup-less, more political prison educators.
Even when I am in the baggy linen pants and the sweatshirt, I always make sure my hair looks nice on the days I teach inside. I always make sure I have on perfume, that I wear a little mascara.
In part, it is because I want them to catch a glimpse of the world outside of this gray, dismal place; and in part, it is because I want them to like me. I want them to want to come to class. Even if that’s about me, instead of the material I’m teaching.
I think of my appearance so much because it is on bright display at the prison. Being one of a handful of women that moves through the space transforms me into an extreme technicolor visibility that I don’t have in my life outside of prison. I am neon. I am blinking. I am shining in prison.
I get high from being seen so brutally, so completely.
I also try to look good because I am afraid my students will judge me. The men are harsh in their assessment of people. In one facility, there are both men and women living in different units. The men are quick to make a comment about a woman’s face or body or ratchet hair. I don’t want them to judge me, and I am insecure. Just like I want men on the outside to think I’m pretty, I want men on the inside to think I’m pretty.
Even though I know this is absurd, I still feel like the men in prison hold something over me. Their masculine judgment of my womanhood still carries weight for me. This is irrational and totally divorced from reality. And yet. When I go into their classroom, where Larry has topless women plastered on his folder, and Peter openly talks about how the easiest thing in the world to sell is pussy, I do feel as though they are in charge. This is their culture, their house. I am an outsider, and I am going to be judged not in the ways of a pristinely manicured college campus but as the prison judges: harsh and direct and honest.
I want the assessment to be simple. She’s pretty.
I’ve been teaching in prisons for a decade now. Here is a list of clothing I have worn that’s been cited as too revealing to enter the building:
A skirt that hits mid-shin, worn with leggings
Shirts that have multiple layers
Button-up shirts, fully buttoned
Short-sleeved shirts, with sleeves not deemed an appropriate length
A cardigan sweater
The same pants I wore the previous week, high-waisted, khaki
And of course, this is not about what I reveal and what I conceal. It is about power; it is about the mood of the correctional officer on duty; it is about the rejection of what my intentions are perceived to be, how they align or contradict the intentions of the person behind the intake desk.
I am at the prison security gate, an unceremonious alcove with a metal detector, folding chair and table. I put my class supplies on the card table each week at 5:30 and hope there is not a stray piece of gum forgotten at the bottom, which could cause class to be cancelled.
“Well, look at this THOT,” the correctional officer says as he saunters out of his office. “A real THOT, this one is. Look at those pants.”
I am wearing the baggy linen pants.
Mrs. Brown, my favorite of the education escorts, shakes her head. “Remember our PREA guidelines,” she says. PREA, like THOT, is an acronym. PREA, or the Prison Rape Elimination Act, is meant to ensure that no one working or living in a prison is subjected to any kind of sexual assault or harassment. I know that acronym, but I haven’t heard THOT yet. I figure it’s one more scrap of prison slang that hasn’t been translated yet. I smile my most convincing smile and shrug my shoulders.
“One of these days, I’m gonna sneak a cookie in here for you,” I say, a line I repeat almost every week to this same officer whose massive bald head always appears slightly sunburned. I’ve never gotten his name.
“I don’t eat sugar,” he says, on cue. “That’s for fat people.” He pats his enormous belly and laughs.
He half looks through my bag, making a comment about how the brown canvas looks like something only a man would carry. “Not even a fag,” he says. “A fag would have better taste.” He picks it up and flips through.
“Go ahead, THOT, go on through with your THOT pants.” Before I can move forward, toward my classroom, a buzzer sounds, and I’m familiar with what it means. “Lockdown,” he says. “Take a seat.” Mrs. Brown takes the folding chair, and the three of us stare at each other awkwardly. And then, apropos of nothing, he speaks.
“You ask me, we’ve got our priorities all screwed up,” he says. “Why do these guys get paid to sit on their asses when my wife and I can’t pay to put her mother in a nice retirement home that she deserves?”
They’re two things that don’t have much correlation to one another, but his question is something that a lot of people ask in a dozen different ways that all come down to this: Why do people who have harmed others, who have harmed their communities, deserve dignity?
These are the moments I am most silent, because I know my voice threatens my ability to keep teaching. The day I get into an argument with a correctional officer is the day the warden tells my boss the program isn’t working and how about we find another facility to run our little classes. I say nothing.
Mrs. Brown is my favorite for a reason. “You can’t be defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done,” she says. “You know, well as I do, most of these guys are leaving here. Moving into your neighborhood and mine.”
“Not my neighborhood,” he says.
“You checked the sex offender registry lately?” she asks.
“You just wouldn’t believe how expensive it is for a nursing home,” he says.
“Oh, I’ve been through it,” Mrs. Brown replies. I’m certain she has. She is four months from retirement, after having spent the first twenty years of her career as a prison psychologist and the last five as a teacher. “These men need to know they can do something once they leave here.”
“You and I just see the world differently,” he says.
The buzzer sounds again and we go through the metal detector. Lockdown is over.
Later, I Google the term THOT. Urban Dictionary informs me it stands for “That Hoe Over There.”
In the following months, I am referred to only as “that hoe over there,” though I never acknowledge knowing what it means. Each week, he mentions a different article of clothing I’m wearing, proof that I am here to assert my hoedom, rather than my professorship.
I smile and make my joke about the cookies. I hold my breath when he looks through my notebook, when he comments on my pants, my sweater, my shoes. I judge him. I judge his decision to work in a prison. I judge him with assumptions: he is uneducated, uninformed, unthoughtful, mean, misogynistic. I judge his body, I judge his big, sunburned head. And he’s not the only one I judge.
I try to do what college-educated people refer to as “checking my privilege.” I think about issues of class. I think about issues of geography, the lack of manufacturing jobs, the areas of Western Pennsylvania that are gutted and all the poets who eulogize the steel mills. I know all these things, and still I judge. There are places in this state where a factory closed and a prison opened, places where there are more people employed as correctional officers than public school teachers.
I think of them driving drunk in their big trucks. I think of them eating their grandmother’s Percocet and watching their big screen TVs, scratching, and eating buffalo chicken dip. I hate myself every time I do it, but I don’t stop. I can’t let it go in my mind, and yet every week I walk in and smile, pretend I don’t know that he’s calling me a hoe. “Bitch,” I think to myself. “You’re white garbage.” I try to think about how much he wants love, how much he cares about his mother-in-law, his genuine smile—but then I push the thoughts out of my mind and say again to myself, “white trash.”
There’s a long history of pitting the poor against the poor. Make them turn on each other and forget their shared struggle. I wish I could remember that when I silently curse the man who calls me a hoe. I wish that I could pretend that this is about dress codes and linen pants, that it’s about petty rules, that this is about sexism, when instead, it seems like it’s about something much, much more complicated than that. It’s not about clothes at all, and yet, it seems like that’s all I’ve got to explain it.
I am one person in prison. I am surrounded by thousands more, all dressed exactly the same. At one facility, it is maroon scrubs that don’t seem to fit anyone. At another facility, it is tan work pants, khaki work shirts.
The thing that distinguishes one person from another is shoes. Some people wear cheap, plastic sandals that seem to be issued by the facility. Others wear canvas loafers, similar to Toms, in the same color as their county-issued scrubs. Some men have work boots. But in all the facilities, it seems that you can have people send you sneakers. There are people in my class who are wearing $250 Jordans. There are people wearing Converse, New Balance; there are old people wearing orthopedic shoes and young people wearing Yeezys.
There’s a vast amount of money being spent in and around prisons, not just in the upkeep and funding of the Department of Corrections but through the families of incarcerated people and the incarcerated themselves. Prison commissary is a huge business: It’s estimated that $1.6 billion per year is spent in prison commissaries, buying cigarettes and typewriters and TVs and shoes. There are catalogues that are used in prison commissaries—the most well-known name is JC Penney—but there are dozens of other companies that provide these catalogues and care-package services to prisons, that are raking in money hand over fist, especially since all the assembling of care packages, the loading and unloading of boxes, the filing and processing, is contracted out to prisoners, who are being paid sometimes as little as two cents per hour to do this work. But people pay. Loved ones on the outside.
At one of the facilities where I teach, a woman put it to me this way: “If you were wearing someone else’s underwear, you’d make sure someone on the outside paid for you to get a new pair.”
It was one of many, many moments I’ve had teaching in the corrections system for ten years that made me remember that life, no matter where you live it, is often valued and judged based on the small matters that determine our daily comfort and happiness.
The women I work with are wearing the same exact uniforms as the men. Some of them are dragging feet of fabric on the ground beneath their shoes. Some of them can’t find tops that accommodate their breasts, and so they illegally rip the shirts at the seams, which earns them demerits and sometimes gets them sent to solitary confinement. I am supposed to hide the woman’s body I bring into prison, and they are expected to do the same. It is as though the system is so ashamed of them that they won’t even acknowledge that they are women. Take the men’s uniforms, take the men’s underwear. After all, you aren’t behaving the way a lady is meant to behave.
It’s not just incarcerated people who wear uniforms in prison. Guard or guarded, there is a costume. There are the lawyers: suits only. I imagine for attorneys who are women, the dress code simply means wearing a pantsuit instead of a skirt suit on the days they visit clients in prison. Nurses and doctors wear what they’d wear in any hospital. Occasionally, I’ll see a stray teacher or food service employee, and they all seem to wear a version of a Steelers jersey and khaki pants, with the jersey changing with the sports season. Pirates, Penguins, Steelers. Repeat. I almost consider buying a sports jersey just to blend in, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
I still haven’t been entirely honest. There’s another reason I try to test the bounds of the dress code in prison.
In the three or four hours I spend in a facility, I am usually the only person I see who is not in uniform. I am the one who flaunts that small slice of freedom. I am freer than the correctional officers, I am freer than the administrators, and it is apparent in my green shirt or my pink pants. I don’t work for this place, and I am not of it. My boss works on a pristinely manicured private campus across town, and she’s wearing a beautiful asymmetrical dress and expensive wedges. I answer to her, not to any polyester suit in this place.
In a place whose purpose is authority and control, I take any opportunity to disarm and dismantle that authority. It is petty, this small gesture of defiance. It holds no real consequence, and that is one of the many ways that the prison system, with its robotic, ever-expanding tentacles, wins. It wins every time I play into its hand, every time I am distracted by its arbitrary rules and overwhelming regulations. It makes itself into the small enemy I am content to fight and distracts me from its truer forms of injustice. The prison system turns people small, and that is one of its greatest evils. It reduces the wild divinity of individual people and transforms them into flimsy rule-breakers, petty thieves and bit players in their own lives. Prison’s power, like poverty’s, is its ability to divide and diminish, to make people obsesses about the tiny things that seem to be in their control, while obscuring the bigger choices that are at play.
When I am confronted with one of my violations, I smile. I say something like, “You know, sometimes I forget all the rules, since I don’t work inside this place all day, every day. You guys are pretty special.” It’s a passive-aggressive dig: I don’t have to be here all the time. You people who work here, who are used to this world. You’re freaks. Smile. Let me teach now.
So much about teaching in prison is not about the classroom or the students or the material. It is about the mental energy I spend fixating on what I’m wearing or how I’m being stared at as I cross the yard. So much about teaching in prison is about turning off the machine of distraction and division. So much of it is about shifting focus, to stop noticing what I’m wearing or what they’re wearing, how we’re all wearing our positions of power—to focus instead on the people in the classroom seats, their poems and stories, not what we’re wearing. So much about teaching in prison is about prison.