Volume 87, Number 4

October 2012

Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation of Social Hierarchy Through Dress

Gabriel Arkles

This Article examines the enforcement of racialized gender norms through the regulation of dress in prisons. Dress, including hair and clothing, is central to the ways government and other institutions enforce hierarchical social norms. These norms are based on the intersection of race and gender, as well as religion, sexuality, class, age, and disability. For many people, dress is a way to express identity, exercise autonomy, practice religion, participate politically, experience pleasure, preserve health, or avoid violence. My review of prison dress regulations shows that prison systems commonly impose penalties including solitary confinement for deviations from dominant social norms. Examples of these deviations include wearing hair in an Afro, covering hair with a headscarf, or having long hair if incarcerated as a man. I situate prison rules in the historical context of dress regulation and prison evolution in the United States. The justifications—such as repression of homosexuality and group affiliation, prevention of attacks and escapes, and promotion of hygiene and rehabilitation—that prison officials offer for these rules raise normative and instrumental concerns. Nonetheless, courts frequently diminish individual and community interests in dress while deferring to prison regulations that lack complete or credible justifications. In furtherance of the goal of prison abolition, I propose an integrated approach for change through policy amendments, doctrinal shifts, and broader grassroots efforts for social transformation.