Inmates get uniforms at Jessup today

Other state prisons will follow suit over next several years

Annex has 1,200 prisoners

Safety concerns prompt switch from personal clothing

October 01, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The state will begin phasing in uniforms today for the 1,200 prisoners at the Maryland House of Correction Annex, where inmates had threatened to attack officers to protest a new policy that forces them to give up their street clothes.

Previously, uniforms had been worn only by prisoners at the boot camp and at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, better known as Supermax. The state has 23,000 inmates.

Because of concerns about potential violence, the maximum-security prison in Jessup has been locked down for the past week. Inmates' movements in the complex have been restricted and visitors have been turned away.

Because the prison was already under a heightened state of security, officials decided to speed up by several weeks their plans to issue uniforms to the inmates.

"It's easier when inmates are locked down," said Priscilla Doggett, a prison spokeswoman. "We're trying to do this gradually and minimize any threats to staff."

The state is issuing each inmate two short-sleeved blue denim shirts, one long-sleeved denim shirt, one sweatshirt, two pairs of denim pants, work boots, tennis shoes and shower shoes. The shirts are marked "D.O.C."

Inmates will be allowed to send their personal clothes home and to keep their underwear.

In places such as Los Angeles, knockoffs of new prison uniforms became a fad on the outside after being introduced in prisons. Some young people starting wearing prison-style jumpsuits on the streets. Maryland prison officials don't expect to start a fashion trend with the ordinary-looking uniforms, which will be made by the inmates.

Officials say they received a tip last week that some inmates were planning to attack prison staff members to protest the changeover to uniforms. Officials also said they have intercepted letters that make threats.

The prison will remain under lockdown until all inmates are in uniform, officials said. "We want this to be a smooth transition," Doggett said.

Division of Correction Commissioner William W. Sondervan said last week that officials decided to put prisoners in uniforms for safety reasons. Uniforms will help officers distinguish inmates from contractors and staff members. "If an inmate goes over a fence, we want them to look like inmates," he said.

Uniforms will be phased in for inmates at other state prisons over the next several years, beginning at the House of Correction in Jessup this year.

Because prisoners no longer will have personal clothes, Sondervan said, he expects fewer fights over brand-name items such as shoes. He also said that searching cells for contraband will be easier. The denim uniforms, which have only one front pocket on the shirt, make hiding weapons and drugs more difficult.

The commissioner told of a House of Correction inmate who sewed 70 small pockets into a jacket and used them to store heroin and cocaine. "He was a walking open-air drug market," Sondervan said. "That will no longer be possible."

Jobs for prisoners

At the annex, where most of the inmates are serving life sentences, putting inmates into uniforms created about 50 jobs for prisoners who sewed the clothing on assembly lines.

One of the factory workers, Larry Bobbs, was a tailor before he was convicted.

"I enjoy this, the cutting and sewing," said Bobbs, who is serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery. The 55-year-old Pittsburgh native might not be a typical inmate: His favorite television show is about antiques.

Many inmates who work at the sewing factory said they like their jobs and the pay: 30 to 40 cents for each shirt and 62 cents for each pair of pants the shift sews.

"It keeps me busy," said Bobbs. "It's good to get out of the cell. There's a little more freedom. Even the air smells different."

Officials say the jobs mean less idleness and fewer problems. "That's probably the most important reason for the uniforms," Sondervan said.

Smoking has been banned

The uniforms, which follow by three months a ban on smoking in prisons, have drawn criticism from some officers, inmates and prison reform advocates who fear that the new policies will lead to violence. They say the policies introduce too much change in too short a time.

Prison officials had planned to introduce the uniforms late next month.

Prison officials addressed many of the inmates' complaints about the aesthetics of the new uniforms. Because the pants have elastic waistbands - which male inmates said looked too feminine - officials added belt loops and will allow inmates to wear belts, Sondervan said.

Inmates will also be allowed to buy upgraded athletic shoes to replace the white, state-issued sneakers they call "fish heads."

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