01 August, 2011

Faded Finery and Frankenfeet: Entropy's Effects on the Prisoner's Wardrobe

When you first "come down" — that is, when you enter into the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections — you're issued three pairs of elastic-waist gray pants, three short-sleeved gray shirts, three white tees, four pairs of whitish socks, five pairs of white boxers, a pair of black brogans, a brown coat, and a fluorescent orange stocking cap. The pants used to have fancy accoutrements like pockets and zipper flies; the gray shirts used to button up and have handy breast pockets; the hats used to be a muted blue. The issue used to be larger, too, including more clothes and a belt. If you wanted more — anything colorful or warm or, I don't know, hip — you had to mail order it through a catalog. Lots of inmates used to do so.

Then came Missouri Vocational Enterprises. MVE uses prisoner labor, paid substantially below minimum wage, to manufacture all kinds of important things for the Department, from cleaning supplies and toilet paper to office furniture and, yes, clothing. When the DOC awarded MVE the contract to be the exclusive provider of clothing to its canteens, inmates were suddenly barred from ordering personal hoodies, socks, jogging shorts, and so forth from any outside vendor. The era of Dickies, Nike, and Hanes came to an end. MVE, with their cheap material and weak stitching, has since been the only show in town. Where its profits go is a closely guarded secret, as is how the enterprise evades federal wage laws.

The old personal clothing was grandfathered, so no one's FUBU or Kansas City Chiefs gear got confiscated, but it has been many years since MVE got that lucrative contract. Not even well-made clothes hold together forever. So you see them all over the prison: tattered Jordan tees, once-red football jerseys gone high pink, puffy coats disgorging white tufts of fill at the elbows. The wearers are as proud of these rags as could be, even though some cling by only a few threads to their bodies. They strut around the yard, cocks of the walk, just pleased to be wearing something that isn't state-issued gray — a touch of individuality, even at the cost of looking like a hobo.

I arrived here before the MVE monopoly, and could have been one of the guys boasting a colorful wardrobe. I wasn't planning on being imprisoned long, though; getting comfortable was the last thing on my mind. Anyway, I like battleship gray. Then, in autumn of 2003, I broke down and ordered a charcoal-colored sweatshirt through the mail. Winters here get blustery. That sweatshirt was stolen a few months later, which I chose to regard as an object lesson in the ultimate pointlessness of acquisition (Fight Club's Tyler Durden would be proud). I did not replace it. I did, however, later buy an MVE fleece jacket that, at seventeen bucks, is hardly an extravagance. Everything else I wear is still state-issued — why spend money on more than what I need? Besides, the available clothing is nothing like what I wore before prison. Wearing tank tops or shorts now would make me less comfortable, not more.

But even I am guilty of going to the preservationist extremes my fellow prisoners employ, where certain items are concerned. One of my thick rubber shower shoes snapped off my foot mid-stride last week, en route back to my cell with a damp towel over my shoulder. I broke into a limp, sliding the broken left sandal along the walk as efficiently as I could, avoiding flesh-to-concrete contact like a practiced germophobe. Then there was a choice to be made. Either I could replace them with a pair of the flimsy new foam-and-rubber flip-flops sold now on the canteen, or I could sacrifice a perfectly serviceable needle and a length of thread from my sewing kit to stitch together my outmoded, cloven footwear.

The needle bent and blunted. I stabbed a finger bloodily. When the job was done, erratic black stitching zigzagged the shoe's top like the handiwork of a drunken frontier surgeon. But it held, so I've still got my shower shoes. I suppose such efforts are no different from someone else awkwardly patching a holey shirt he's had since 1994, even if that shirt's little more than a collar with a meager web of fiber that links tenuously to sleeves. We cling to what we can.

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