Photo of artwork by Rocko [credited as James Jones in the exhibit], courtesy of All Street gallery; Graphic by Lara Witt

Three pairs of boots, size 13D Doc Martens, have traversed unthinkable journeys and lived many lives. Manufactured by Bob Barker, the leading clothes manufacturer for American carceral facilities, they were first purchased in the southern Illinois prison where Rocko, a writer and artist, has been incarcerated since 2016. This past September, the boots were on display at an exhibit featuring the work of a handful of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists at All Street, a small gallery in New York’s Lower East Side. They were there not just as pieces of fashion, but as a way to spur deeper considerations into prison life. 

In a blurb about the collection featured in the exhibit “Visitation: Abolitionist Creations For and Far From Home,” Rocko [credited as James Jones in the exhibit] writes that he drew expressions of “freedom, hope, justice, equality, and optimism,” using the boots that incarcerated people wear everywhere they go on the inside. The once plain black shoes have been splashed with vibrant color and illustrations and transformed into mobile poster boards with radical abolitionist messages like “Free Us All/ Love & Solidarity” and “Wage love, destroy all borders/Abolish ICE.” The latter pair also shows a cartoon rendering of perhaps Rocko himself, free.

“Altering the boots that were intended to walk the yard on the feet of the oppressed and powerless and making them beautiful with powerful presentations of color and messages of hope is a form of resistance that really resonates with my comrades inside when I show them the finished projects,” Rocko writes.

Artwork by Rocko [credited as James Jones in the exhibit], photographs courtesy of All Street gallery

For those who’ve never been ensnared by the carceral system, any attempt to walk a mile in Rocko’s shoes is impossible. However, fashion can be a medium to illustrate the realities of life inside, challenge assumptions about incarcerated people, and interrogate a wide spectrum of ideas about the purpose and moral value of the carceral system as a whole. 

Clothes and accessories are some of the primary elements that shape our perceptions of others, which makes them incredibly effective tools for relaying who we are and what we believe. This also makes them a means of control and repression—in prison, restrictions on what can be worn limit expression and personal autonomy. Seen in this light, the message of Rocko’s “Movement Shoes” takes on an additional dimension, where clothing offers an avenue for the incarcerated to resist repression through ingenuity, creativity, and sheer willpower.

On the outside, where the ability to dress freely is less strictly policed, clothing can also be a way to express one’s political views, such as supporting prison abolition or upholding the system as it is. Particular style choices and the stories they carry can help relay one’s political leanings before they even introduce themselves. The clothes on our backs can become conversation pieces and, for abolitionist groups, a meaningful product that can help raise money for causes and campaigns while also disseminating the ideologies and theories of change that those very campaigns hope to uplift and make mainstream. 

The reality, however, is that the ability to use fashion as a means for political expression requires wrestling with the ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise when the decisions and tastes of consumers collide with the lived experiences of those inside. 

“Clothing Inside”

There is a long relationship between clothing and carcerality and how clothing items are used both inside and outside of prisons to critique, resist, or bolster the system. Jonathan Alvarez, Tzuni Lopez, and Rashida Ricketts, the curators of “Clothing Inside: Addressing America’s Prisons”—an exhibit that was on view this summer at The New School’s Parsons School of Design—explored how clothing is used to surveil, suppress, and strip incarcerated people, as well as their loved ones, of their autonomy, identity, and dignity. 

A recurring point of focus throughout “Clothing Inside” is the prison commissary, where people inside can purchase items for grooming and adornment but from extremely limited selections and at egregiously high prices. On display are boots that appear similar to Rocko’s Doc Martens but are Timberland knock-offs. The curators note that while commissary items may mimic more familiar and coveted brands stylistically, the designs are far less comfortable and can even cause injury as a result of their poor construction. Exhibit visitors are asked to consider what items essential to their lives are missing from the selected commissary lists. How might those omissions impact an individual’s everyday life and sense of wellness? 

The exhibit also notes how incarcerated people often practice “kicking off”—covertly switching shoes with family or friends during visits. If done successfully, people inside can obtain name-brand footwear and garner approval among their peers—both for taking a bold risk and for obtaining access to marketplace items deemed worthier than the knock-offs made available to them. 

Even clothing provided to people upon their release—which may be the only items they can wear as they return home—seeks to brand the wearer as coming from the carceral system. In effect, while the wearer may no longer be inside, those clothes imprison the wearer with social stigmas. From DOC-branded hoodies to disposable paper prison jumpsuits, wearing such items makes it even more difficult for formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate into their community. 

Surveillance and stigma through clothing also extends to the loved ones of those inside. There are restrictions around what clothing prison officials have deemed safe and appropriate, which can also dictate the terms of visitation. An array of bra underwires collected by Nigel Poor after finding them strewn outside of California’s San Quentin State Prison suggests that loved ones visiting their family or friends had to remove them before entering the facility. For women in particular, clothes deemed inappropriate can also bar visits from taking place at all.

“When I found the first underwire, I thought it was a curious anomaly,” writes Poor. “Every time I pick one up, I think about the person out in the parking lot struggling to cut into her bra to fish out a wire.”

But just as “Clothing Inside” illustrates the use of material items as an extension of carceral surveillance, it also highlights how incarcerated people strive to make unique, sartorial decisions that allow them to resist repression. For instance, the exhibit includes a wallet artfully stitched together from commissary soup wrappers, noting how such “prison inventions illustrat[e] how existing materials—even those meant to be discarded—can be refashioned to create beauty, utility, and resistance.”

In an interview with Prism, Lopez said that the exhibit curators had spoken with a man in Guantanamo about how he used clothing as a form of protest. The man said that he would even take thread from his jumpsuit to use as dental floss.

“There was something so jarring about that to me,” Lopez said. “Even my clothing and going through my day has been a bit transformed by doing this research, whether it’s about the clothing on my back or looking at the structural dimensions of all the stories I’m hearing.”  

Worn on the outside 

Discussions about the intersection between fashion and abolition often focus on the push to end the exploitation of incarcerated workers by private fashion brands. But abolitionist organizers have used material wear to also speak out against prison conditions by transforming the body into a canvas, often while using the sales of such items to fund anti-prison campaigns. 

In a 1973 article by The New York Times, the rising popularity of the T-shirt was described as “the medium for the message.” A gallery wall of abolitionist tees included in “Clothing Inside” speaks to the ongoing veracity of that title, particularly for grassroots campaigns that sprang up during or following summer 2020. Lopez said that the people the exhibit curators reach out to were taking different approaches and intentions—sometimes dramatically so—to what slogans and designs they were putting on T-shirts. For instance, the exhibit got some shirts from For Everyone Collective, a print shop that uses T-shirt sales to fund the abolition movement and the business itself. The collective boasts collaborations with luminaries such as Angela Davis and also employs formerly incarcerated staff, increasing work opportunities for those returning home who otherwise face job discrimination that poses mounting hurdles. 

“They’re intentionally putting out abolitionist wear as a form of education … so clothing has become a potential conversation starter,” Lopez said. “Maybe somebody will see a little note on your shirt and ask you a question about it, and it can lead to these larger revelatory moments of teaching and learning between people.”

While shirts that display slogans like For Everyone Collective’s “Don’t call the cops: there are alternatives to contacting the police” and “ningun ser humano es ilegal” speak to the growing popularity of abolitionist wear, it also suggests a disconcerting turn toward trendiness, raising questions around the line between political self-expression and performativity. 

Ricketts said that this transition is frustratingly common, where brands and organizations jump on something as a response to cultural movements that are “trending,” but when the issue or moment passes from popularity, brands’ involvement diminishes. But Ricketts said that even if brand participation falls away, the T-shirts remain a physical reminder of the ongoing issue and can serve as conversation starters or an introduction to abolitionist ideas.

“It makes people think about something that’s almost invisible—like people who are incarcerated—because we’re not always interacting unless you have a loved one who is behind bars or you’re intentional in your activism,” Ricketts said. “So now you’re forcing another person to think about it, and so I think that is a good thing.”

However, in the same ways that leftist organizers and those with abolitionist politics use fashion to express their views, those who support the carceral system also utilize clothing in similar ways, at times even making the means of production for these items a political statement. Large companies like Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney have made headlines and come under public scrutiny for their use of incarcerated labor—and subsequent attempts to obscure it. Perhaps more troubling, though, is how other companies actually promote their use of imprisoned workers as an essential part of their business ethos and a way to draw consumers in.

While some abolitionist fashion purveyors aim to create “a world free from revenge” where the threads are a means to the end and not the end itself, others claim to support incarcerated workers while utilizing a business model that can’t exist without the carceral system and the free or low-wage labor it provides them.

Prison Blues, a denim line produced in the medium-security state prison Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, openly markets itself as “made on the inside, to be worn on the outside.” Founded in 1989 as a part of Inside Oregon Enterprises, from a federal government grant funded through drug seizures, Prison Blues employs roughly 1,600 incarcerated men who work in a 47,000-square-foot garment factory within the prison. Incarcerated workers employed through Prison Blues produce jeans, denim jackets, shirts, and other items that have found immense popularity among loggers, carpenters, handymen, and young Japanese fashion influencers. 

In a Wall Street Journal article about the Prison Blues published in April, Imaichi Hayami, a 25-year-old store worker in Japan, attributes the company’s popularity among denim aficionados across Tokyo to the brand’s wide-legged fit and strong craftsmanship. And while the brand’s backstory is dismissed by some fans, for others, it’s part of its novelty. Correction Connection, an independent Oregon-based vendor, praises the brand for not just its durability but also describes it on their website as “a conversation piece.” However, that claim assumes that those who buy Prison Blues products are even interested in having that conversation in the first place. When discussing the Prison Blues’ relationship to prisons Hayami said, “I don’t wear it after thinking deeply. [I’m] wearing it because it’s good.”

The fact is that the nature of the brand’s production and popularity amongst consumers can’t be divorced from its fundamental reliance upon and normalization of incarceration—regardless of the impact on the incarcerated workers whose labor is essential to the brand’s success. Prison Blues earned $2 million in revenue last year, and it is one of the most highly sought after jobs within Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute. This is due in large part to the fact that incarcerated Prison Blues workers technically earn a prevailing industry wage, though they are only permitted to keep only 20% of their earnings. The remainder goes to restitution, legal fees, any child support back pay, and “upkeep”—essentially defraying the cost of incarceration while ensuring its longevity. 

Prison Blues’ business model doesn’t just hinge on producing well-constructed jeans. It also relies on the myth of rehabilitation, on consumers’ belief that they are investing in a system that provides opportunity, and the cheeky satisfaction of normalizing incarceration while also positioning oneself above it—made on the inside, worn on the outside. 

Bridging the gap

The greatest measure of impact for exhibitions or brands that use textiles to comment upon the system is how much those efforts are in conversation with incarcerated people and informed by their everyday experiences. In some cases, this emerges despite the structural barriers that limit direct communication between people on the inside and those on the outside. 

For the curation of “Clothing Inside,” this intentional obstruction created challenges. Even Ricketts, whose master’s thesis helped provide some of the research that ultimately fueled the content of the exhibition, ran into difficulties securing prison uniforms that would be ideal for the display. The exhibit curators wanted to ensure that items on display were true to form and actual items purchased from prison suppliers as opposed to replicas. Similarly, obtaining items from people inside proved to be difficult.

“When I was initially doing my thesis research, I thought [purchasing a prison uniform through a distributor] would have been something simple to do,” said Ricketts. “So then when we got to this project, realizing how much of a barrier it is to actually connect with someone on the inside was shocking to me.”

Avarez said that people inside can often be unaware of mobilizations made toward prison or police abolition, including how different movements are using fashion to discuss and work toward dismantling the carceral system. 

“I find that really interesting,” Alvarez said. “There’s this unseen connection, but people inside don’t realize the way that people and groups on the outside nationally are trying to raise the conversation and push different causes using fashion.” 

Longtime advocates of any social movement know that it can be dangerous when, in the process of becoming mainstream, a movement becomes disconnected from the experiences of those it initially intended to support and fight for. Maintaining real and sincere connections to incarcerated people is essential for advocates and organizers, including those whose chosen medium for activism is fashion. No matter how engaging the exhibit or popular the collective, if incarcerated people are left uninformed regarding conversations and initiatives that are ostensibly about and for them, how transformative can the abolitionist initiatives truly be?

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.