Taste and See
I see it when they return to the compound for a day from their halfway houses – usually in dilapidated neighborhoods – for medical appointments. They parade past a plate glass window in the small dining hall where food service workers eat their lunch, separated from the rest of general population because we smell of chicken bologna and crushed tomatoes.
I can tell that each day-tripper from the halfway houses know this is her chance to impress the other inmates; any other time she stands among inmates oppressed by ugly uniforms, she wears one, too. But for this medical appointment, she’ll look different.
“She looks different. Don’t she look good?” women squeal when the parade passes as its members wave to us. I never say it out loud, but my answer is always “No.” It’s cinematic ghetto.
A woman, about 60, mouth puckered from her dentures’ absence, wears a denim miniskirt and thigh-high, grey suede boots. A two hundred and fifty pound woman wears painted-on capri length jeans with a tee shirt that reads “I Got Your Crazy Right Here.” Another sparkles in a sequined dress and Timberland boots and not worn in that stylish and eclectic way, either. Most others wear low-rise jeans that are so tight that it’s not a muffin top of a fat roll circling the waistband; for these women the muffin batter has spilled all over. If it isn’t substance abuse for them, then it’s style abuse.
Not only do I plead guilty to boring ensembles and understatement, I confess to being a snob and a bitch when it comes to others’ appearances. I know my own insecurities underpin this attitude which makes me a hypocrite in addition to being a viper. The truth is that, if I were to see this parade on the outside, my friends and I (if they were still my friends) would exchange silent, supercilious looks that ask What the fuck is that? I don’t defend myself on this behavior because I can’t.
Substandard uniforms and a lack of cosmetics make dressing your way very difficult in prison. When inmates take a stab at it – for a court appearance, a special visit, a graduation from an educational program or even their own weddings in the facility (one real one while I’ve been here and a ton of fake ‘ceremonies’ between ‘wives’ on the tiers) – 80’s-prom-reminiscent jewel toned pastel crayons – chartreuse, royal – detonate on their eyes. Fuchsia tracks their cheeks and a very dark brown concoction of petroleum jelly, instant coffee and sometimes browning syrup used for gravies in the kitchen turns their lips into slips of liver. An ill-advised perm coils some hair so tightly that it makes the woman look like the victim of a violent attack by crimping iron.
However much of an asshole I may be, the fact remains that some covers betray the contents of their books. I can tell immediately that the women in the parade grew up in the impoverished inner-city. Even with no money, I wouldn’t dress like that because I didn’t grow up there. I don’t think this is elitist, racist or otherwise prejudiced. It’s simply the truth.
Sometimes I wonder if makeover’s wouldn’t break poverty’s intergenerational curse. I can’t tell if women really want to present themselves like this because they’re poor or they’re poor because they choose to present themselves like this. Is this how they’re dressing for job interviews? I wonder. If it is, there’s no wonder they’re underemployed. Do they know that those gold, bamboo-looking hoop earrings announce “My boyfriend is a drug-dealer” more loudly than anything else? I can’t say that some women’s taste is better than others but, from what I’ve witnessed up closed in here, conceptions of beauty – or acceptable appearance – are determined by socioeconomic status.
The aesthetic alone alienates me from the other inmates. I’ll cop a plea to boring and no jury will acquit me of understatement for my look on the outside. Garish is beautiful to the underclass, apparently. In here, though, less can never be more because women come from so much less. They don’t know more because prison is poverty’s dumping ground. They think that if there’s a lot of something, then it can’t be bad.
The taste in here is limited, for sure, not only by the facility’s rules, but by the fact that more conservative, orthodox sensibilities are out of reach for them, not only financially but exposure-wise. Who are the people in your neighborhood? That’s who you’re gonna look like. The only other inmate here who could peg what I look like on the outside was a woman who was a hairstylist at a salon in New Haven called Panache.
“You’re the beige and bob type,” she said when she assessed me, unsolicited. “You wear Essie “Mademoiselle” [nail polish] on your nails and you never grow your hair out real long.”
“Yeah, do I know you?” I asked. She had sized me up like I do the other women that came from her neighborhood. She was exposed to my type at the salon and I was exposed to hers in here.
Just from being around the paraders and their nails and hair-did’s, even I’ve started thinking about zesting up my look when I get out. Maybe ombre highlights. Or even a pink streak in my hair. At least 50 inmates came here with fuchsia hair and I’ve decided it’s not always unflattering. Some of the geometric nail art looked okay to me today. But my ombre pinkness and yellow and blue triangles painted on with gel polish (I never had it before I got here so it’s all the rage to me) would stick me out in my regular people circuits and I’d end up changing to blend back in. Taste and personal style are like language; they’re taught by immersion. I’ve been immersed in a foreign land here in Niantic for so long that I’m almost fashion illiterate.
When they come back in from their halfway houses, the rainbow explosions of makeup, the ill-fitting clothes, the curling three-inch acrylic nails decorated with austere, male presidential faces from real dollar bills (bills that should stay put in their wallets or pockets) keep these women insiders to the wrong crowd and outsiders to the people who might be able to bring them out of poverty and rectify their lives.
Whether it’s right or wrong, people make snap judgments about appearance. Would people judge the paraders differently if they dressed more like me on the outside? Yes. It’s an offensive and oppressive thought that life would be easier for disadvantaged people if they looked like people who aren’t but it’s also reality. So much of the truth is distasteful.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM MARCH 14 – 20, 2016
President Obama nominated the Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, Merrick Garland, to fill the seat on the United States Supreme Court vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death. Garland’s record on Sixth Amendment rights – the right to effective assistance of counsel and all that it entails – isn’t great. In United States v. Watson, he dissented from a decision to grant a new trial to a defendant whose prosecutor misrepresented the evidence in closing arguments, saying it was “inevitable that trial lawyers [would] suffer from innocent misrecollections.” Until Garland goes to jail for an innocent misrecollection, I don’t like him. Next.
Anders Brevik, convicted of the mass murder of 77 people in 2011, is in solitary confinement in Halden Prison in Norway with a three-room cell, complete with a computer, a television and a game console. But he’s still suing to get out of solitary, alleging human rights violations. It would be nice to see him win and get mixed into general population – and then see the look on his face when he realizes how good he really had it.
Luck o’ the Inmates: the rate caps that the Federal Communications Commission ordered for prison phone calls last fall went into effect on St. Patrick’s Day because, just one day before, the FCC wiggled out from a stay imposed by a federal appeals court earlier in the month. The phone companies think that prisons will erupt in violence because inmates won’t understand the new rates, which is a stretch even in the fictional Oz prison. Lower rates for calls will mean higher fees elsewhere. Trust me.