Language, Dress Code and the Prison Estate

Saw this photo circulating online but unsure of the origin.

This blog started of as a post on social media, however I wanted to take a little more time to unpack and breakdown why this might be considered problematic. It is good practice for us all to develop the critical thinking skills needed to understand how biases can creep into our policies and procedures. Also to note, it is not just HMP Full Sutton who uses this dress code, similar rules can be found across the prison estate, although one of my favourites is from HMP Woodhill that states “underwear must be worn” (there is backstory here I would love to know).


1: Appropriateness

Language is an important feature in our day-to-day, we must always be aware of the assumptions we make when using words such as ‘appropriate’, as they leave much to the imagination. Appropriateness is arguably subjective, which means it is based on the experiences and/or perceptions of the person doing the judging and might vary across individuals. In this particular context, the appropriateness is evaluated by prison officers and not the person attending the visit, which can create tension due to conflict in opinions. Prison officers, like all human beings, work across a spectrum of different thinking frameworks, which can lead to inconsistencies in the way that they experience and engage with appropriateness. It might be debated that all prison officers are trained in the same way, which decreases the subjected risk. However, we see similar patterns of inconsistency within the prison estate, regarding the use of the Incentive and Earned Privileged (IEP) scheme, therefore should be open to the idea of difference.

2: Gang

‘Gang’ has also been used in the above text, another subjective word. The definition of a ‘gang’ continues to vary and in most cases, is lacking definition, which means that the perception of what a gang-logo is, will be dependent on individuals. This can lead to a bias and targeting of particular groups of people.

Dress Code

3: Top and dresses that cover the chest, stomach and back.

We will also include here the image of an “acceptable covered woman” vs the “unacceptable uncovered woman”.

There is something to be said here about the projection of the inappropriateness of the female body in its natural form and that it must be covered. There is probably a male on the other side of this poster, although I doubt he would be deemed as problematic.

The counter argument might be, that this is due to sex offenders on visits or the unintentional arousal of imprisoned men. However, we must be careful with this as we fall into the argument that women are responsible for the male gaze, lust and any behaviour that comes from that. This policing of the female body for the benefit of men, can call into question the wider understanding of the prison system as we could argue, what types of unsafe environments are we creating both internally and externally. A subject to be unpacked further at a later date.

There is also a question of age, is a girl wearing a vest top as inappropriate as a woman? If so, what goes on in the mind of a child or young person who goes to visit her dad in summer wearing a vest top, only to be told what she is wearing is inappropriate? How are these situations internalized by the unconscious mind, especially that of a child?

Secondary to this, it could be argued that women need to wear these types of ‘appropriate’ clothing for security reasons. Does this then suggest that people became safer and less of a risk because they wear more clothing? Is there a relationship between clothing and risk, or is it a relationship between clothing and perceived risk? Or is the relationship in fact between skin and risk, perceived or otherwise?

If skin is somehow the risk, what happens when that skin is brown? What if we add to this equation all that we know around the policing of black/brown bodies? Do women with brown skin become the ultimate threat and security risk?


This is a very pedantic blog post, I am aware. However I am very interested in how the small overlooked parts of life can have unintended consequences. My concern with language and rules such as the above, and not just within this context, is that it can lead to ‘othering’ and shaming of both individuals and groups. This helps to create the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamics we, in my opinion, need to move away from in order to sustain more peaceful societies.

Like always, this blog is just my opinion based on curiosity and willingness to ask questions, I could be and am open to being wrong.


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