They call it the “Uniform of the Day” – a burgundy t-shirt and elastic-waist Mom jeans – as if anything changes from day to day or even day to night.
Uniform jeans confer only one type of status at York CI: proof of miles earned. New admissions wear stiff, dark navy pants that still retain their cheap-dye sheen. An inmate like me who has trod around the grounds for years in uniform jeans, wears a faded, softer look, almost like expensive Japanese jeans or one of the rinse options at Barney’s Denim Bar.
Years ago, inmates wore any clothing they chose, outfits from home, creating multiple forms of fashion expression and many modes of competition; theft became sport. So they instituted uniforms, supposedly to unify us, make us all the same.
Since we’re supposed to be identical, the only ways to compete with other female prisoners in the looks category are gluttony and wasting. Because tailoring clothes in the prison laundry is prohibited and therefore expensive (up to $15.00 worth of commissary to get a worker to risk her job by hemming jeans) inmates rarely change how their uniforms fit them. Rather, they change the way they fit their uniforms.
Prison eating habits skew to opposite extremes: gorging and keeping it down or gorging and bringing it up. One faction of inmates, Team Binge, often gains more than 100 lbs. in a year to make the squad. They claim to aim to look “thick” – not fat or obese – and leave the two sides of their seams longing for each other, clutching and cleaving under extreme pressure. This team looks to score “black-girl asses,” round shelf-butts filling out their uniform jeans nicely, fatiguing their pant waist’s elasticity.
Team Binge’s opposition, Team Purge, gags and pukes every ingestion, bursting blood vessels in their eyes, puffing their faces with fluid, raising little red patches at the corners of their mouths from the sideward spill of stomach acid. T-shirts and jeans “of the day” start to look like ballooning caftans on Team Purge.
“She is so fat,” and “Look at her skinny ass” are the cross-field trash-talking before every game; the plays are either friendly food-sharing or neighborly concern.
I’m not on either team, really. I eat a lot but I don’t binge and I lost weight when I arrived and kept it off. When it comes to food and fat, I’m kind of a correctional wildcard and each team tries to recruit me all of the time.
“Chandra, you need to eat!” the Binger Captain proclaims to me as she thrusts a bowl filled with two pounds of ramen, cut with rice of all things. Miscellaneous nitrate-filled meat cubes nestle in between the ramen squiggles and rice nuggets coated with squeeze cheese. I’m looking at 3100 calories minimum, so I refuse.
“I already ate two calzones, a cup of cottage cheese and three apples at work,” I decline. My ability to forego at times and indulge at others has earned me the title of champion eater.
“No, I don’t want you to get sick,” she insists, trying to dispense medicinal carbs.
“If I add anything else to my stomach, I will get sick,” I explain. I know what she’s trying to do: take down the champ.
“Sorry. No budge, no pudge.”
Sometimes I accept the bowl and use a pump fake with my spoon, eating one mouthful before passing off to a starving cellmate. I’m not going to let anyone call me out of my uniform jeans with one of her junk-food pitches.
When Team Purge tries to suck me in, their game is questions. “Are you really going to eat that?” or “How much do you weigh?” they ask me. I reply “Yes.” “Enough.”
Most inmates tuck quintessential feminine wiles into their uniform jean pockets when they depart their cells each day. Because all of the inmates are afflicted, beset or completely fed up with our current stations in life, one would expect the York CI populace to develop some union, some cohesion other than just dressing alike.
We never will because we never stop competing with or comparing ourselves to each other. The prize may be attention from the C/O’s, money from home, mail from boyfriends, ass-curves from indulging or weight loss from dieting but we must always one-up each other. Because our location limits our options, the best way to one-up another prisoner is to knock her down two by implying – or even stating outright – that there is something wrong with her physique.
The competition and comparison root in insecurity, I know. But if, just for once, inmates learned a type of self-sufficiency by which they competed only with themselves, then big waistlines would shrink, emaciated ones would expand, fortunate inmates would share and underprivileged prisoners would accept without reservation or shame. We would start to become the same, one form of a flawed woman who’s just trying to get it together and the uniforms could end up uniting us.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM JANUARY 18-24, 2016
The policy and research group In the Public Interest released the results of a study that showed only two parts of the criminal justice system have resisted privatization: the courts and law enforcement. But do we really think that money hasn’t found its way into judges’ and cops’ pockets? There’s just no paper trail for In the Public Interest to track down.
Two executions took place this week: one in Texas and one in Alabama (the state’s first since 2013). I still don’t think it’s right that the same act gets punished differently in different states. If these two prisoners did the same thing in different states, they’d be playing Three-Five-Nine right now.
The Washington Post ran two pieces about plea bargains and innocent defendants. The first from the conservative Cato Institute and the second from a law professor who’s studied convictions. It’s not just the people behind bars who are saying that they’re innocent.