When did prisoners start dressing in orange?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 3 2010 7:26 PM

Orange Alert

When did prisoners start dressing in orange?

A murder suspect wearing an orange jumpsuit.
A murder suspect wearing an orange jumpsuit

An Iraqi minister paraded a group of 39 terror suspects past reporters in Baghdad on Thursday, each detainee clad in a bright orange jumpsuit. Steven Hayes, who was sentenced to death on Thursday after killing a Connecticut woman and her two daughters, was also wearing an orange jumpsuit when he appeared in court. When did prisoners start wearing orange?

Pretty recently. Back in the 19th century, prisoners commonly wore black-and-white stripes. Prisons started abandoning this design in the early 20th century, citing its association with chain gangs. For a while, more demure colors were in vogue. New York state abolished prison stripes in 1904, switching to jackets and caps made of gray cloth. North Carolina kept the stripes until 1958, when it replaced them with a color system based on custody levels: Gray uniforms for high-security prisoners, brown for medium-, and green for low-. It wasn't until the 1970s or so that jails started putting some prisoners in orange uniforms—but usually only in special detention situations (like in a temporary facility) or in transit. In California, for example, prisoners must wear orange or red when they're being transported.

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While orange may be more popular than in the past, it's actually not ubiquitous. The state of California outfits its male prisoners in denim jeans, blue chambray shirts, and denim jackets. The federal maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., issues khaki trousers and shirts. New York state actually bans the color orange among prisoners: It issues uniforms that are "hunter green," and lets them wear their own T-shirts, as long as they're not blue (the color of prison-guard uniforms), black (too hard to see), gray (other officials wear it), or orange (the color worn by the Correctional Emergency Response Team, or riot control).

Orange might seem more pervasive than it is because prisoners often change into orange when they go out in public. Sheriffs sometimes put prisoners in orange during perp walks in front of reporters, and prisoners often wear orange in court. Movies such as Con Air—in which a group of convicts clad in orange hijacks a plane—have also helped spread the impression that orange is the new black-and-white. And then there's Gitmo. Pictures of Guantanamo Bay prisoners wearing orange have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, although government officials say that most prisoners there wear white.

Some prisons make a point of picking distinctive uniforms. Cleveland County makes prisoners wear pink shirts and yellow-and-white striped pants, which sheriff's officials say makes escape more difficult. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, has at various times forced prisoners to wear traditional stripes, orange jumpsuits, and pink underwear.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Linda Foglia of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Edmond Ross of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Paul Verke of the California Department of Corrections.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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