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What Not To Wear...To Prison

The friend that I have been visiting in jail was moved to state prison recently and I have not driven the three hours to see him yet.  I decided that today was going to be the day.  I read the state prison website several times this week being sure that I knew what I could and could not bring in, when to arrive, where to go etc.  I called the special hotline to make sure that no one was on lockdown and I wouldn’t be turned away after making the drive.

When I got to the dress code in the visitor information I paid special attention.  The rules are very specific.  No blue clothing, including jeans because that’s what the prisoners wear.  No khaki pants or green tops because that’s what the guards wear.  No orange.  Right when I started thinking I’d be safe with a long dress, I read No Mumus- apparently some women prisoners wear mumus.  Dresses can’t be shorter than 2 inches above the knee.  No revealing clothing.  Seems reasonable.  Oh, and don’t forget that it is going to be 80 degrees and creeping upward when you get there.  My clothing options narrowed as I read.

I have a hard enough time deciding what to wear every morning when jeans and khakis are on the menu.  This was difficult.  I landed on a chocolate brown linen sundress- acceptable color, right length, cool.  I started out at 4am to make the three hour trek, turned in my paper work and was told to come back at 9:30am.  When I returned the first officer greeted me and passed me through.  As I approached the check in, the officer immediately said, “Ma’am that dress is way too revealing.”  Revealing?  Seriously?  I’m making a pastoral visit.  I read the website.  It’s not blue.  All the protests ran through my mind.  “No sleeveless ,” he explained.

Luckily I was on a trip and had a suitcase in my car.  I knew the perfect solution- a white short-sleeve jacket.  I trekked back to the car and put it on and marched back confidently.  The officer passed me through after making me promise I wouldn’t take the jacket off.  I was just about through the metal detector when a women officer called me back.   “Wait, wait, wait.  Can you take that jacket off?”  “I can,” I said, “but I won’t.”  “No, no, no,” she said.  “You have to change.”  Back to the car I went, mentally sorting through my suitcase.  When I opened it up all I saw were blue jeans and green t-shirts.  Ugh!

I pulled out another sleeveless dress and put a white t-shirt over it, hoping she would let my properly covered arms through.  I started back across the yard, this time looking around at what the other women were wearing.  The regulars, the pros, were all wearing black.  They wore some sort of black capri with a black short sleeve top.  Genius! 

This time the officer ignored me as if to do me a favor, maybe a different officer would let me through.  Another woman approached.  “What’s under your t-shirt?’ she asked.  “It’s a dress,” I said sheepishly and slyly slid my minister’s card across the desk.  “I’m a pastor, “I said hoping it would convince her I wasn’t planning to rip my top off on the inside.  “You’re a pastor?” she sighed as if that fact forced her to let me through.  “Step back.  Turn around.  Ok.”  Finally, outfit approved. 

Apparently when Jesus said, ‘when you visit the prisoner, it is as if you are visiting me,’ he forgot to specify that he doesn’t want to see our arms.  So next time you try to walk out your faith, be sure you read the instructions three times, not just twice.  And to be safe, wear black.


Hey Crissy!
So you just reminded me of the time I visited an all men's state prison in MA with my Evangelism class while in seminary. I remember having the same hard time with what I could actually wear. I ended up with a burgundy long sleeve turtle neck and black slacks and round tip toes closed shoes. I was roasting in the turtle neck and so hot I sweat endlessly. When did arms become the new ankles? I'll never forget that day! HA

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Prisons are funny beasts. I've learned to take clothing that has little to no pockets and extremely plain. When I worked in the Bay Area, I actually wore a collar and garbs; it just made things easier. As a Black man, that process you had to go through is magnified 10 times. And I've found guards could care less. As I've interviewed Sheriff guards over the years, most HATE being there. It's their first year in and they would rather be out in the field. The prison guards who are there have a lot of issues with authority and power; a lot of social power distribution theory going on. It makes for quite a mess. The prisoners at Pelican Bay are taking a stand and going on a hunger strike until they get better treatment from the guards....

Good post! Thanks for your thoughts. Glad its not just me!!!

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