“Sweats is the new suit”

Everything in prison is backwards or upside-down, a bizarro world where values are inverted and the abnormal is normalized. In the real world, blowing down on someone with a banger because he’s a different race and/or weaker, and then robbing him of his food is rightly abhorred. The perpetrator would be instantly denounced. Here, he gains a begrudging respect.

In a similar reversal, the penitentiary is the only place in the world where spending every day in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and tennis shoes signals that you’re doing well, instead of being the costume of the lazy and unemployed. If you’ve got sweats, you got money on your account and probably get money in the weigh pit. Inmates whose accounts are capped because of restitution and child support relentlessly bargain for sweats or shoes because they can’t order those items themselves. They’re nearly as essential as a TV to doing your bit comfortably.

When you first come down, you’re provided with two sets of blues, two sets of thermals, 5 pairs of socks, pajamas, 5 pairs of whitey tighties , and black state shoes, which are formal-ish. The current prison uniform is basically navy-blue hospital scrubs, but the old outfit was a button up with orange shoulders and 2 pocket pants with a belt and an orange stripe down the sides. These are highly sought after, because they’re just more presentable. Plus, it’s the only time you’ll button up a shirt in the joint, which is priceless, for your psyche. The complete outfit, including the now phased-out belt, goes for $5-6 on the yard; any individual piece will fetch at least $2.

To deconstruct the status system of prison clothing even further, certain color sweats connote subtle differences. Certain colors, like purple or red, haven’t been available in over a decade, so usually these are rocked by old heads. The only dude with one in my unit got popped with a few keys of coke a long time ago.

Today, you have a choice of a few different vendors and colors: light blue, yellow, orange, maroon, forest green, and white. The first are the ugliest, cheapest, and most uncomfortable. They’re haphazardly stitched together by prisoners up north, and best reserved as a workout outfit. The latter three are pricier due to shipping fees, but you don’t look ridiculous and feel good ’em. The white is the best, but most expensive because of the vendor’s ridiculous surcharges. It also goes with anything you could possibly pair it with.

Likewise, owning shoes besides the state-issued clunkers conveys some degree of wealth, or at least, that some people in the world still love you. You can only order shoes in all-white, although some Nike’s are available with a black swoosh, except for the prisoner-produced ones, which come in black as well. Those are $20 Velcro’s, and make you look like you need a helmet, too. They fall apart after a couple months but are never disposed of. A guy I ran with had a pair and you could see his big toe wiggling in one of ’em.

Because of the limited options, most of the shoes don’t look good, or look too “institutional”, except for the Nike Cortez (incidentally, the shoes I was wearing when I was arrested), and these Reebok “classic nylon running” shoes, as they’re listed in the catalogs. Black guys with some time often have a pair of off-brand boots that resemble Timberland’s in addition to tennis shoes, while the white guys have the Columbia hiking boots.

Still, you’re considered to have “made” it once you can just lounge around all day in sweats, not even changing into blues to go to the chow hall, where wearing sweats is prohibited, and changing into a different pair of shoes depending if you’re inside or out, exercising or chillin’.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s