When a ship full of convicts first arrived at Point San Quentin in 1852, the prisoners were forced to build the cellblock that would eventually confine them. They wore their own clothes as they built California's first prison, but by 1860, San Quentin inmates wore the standard prison dress of the day: black-and-white striped uniforms.
Prison stripes, which originated in New York's Auburn Correctional Facility in the 1820s, served a practical purpose—to distinguish prisoners in case of an escape—but doubled as a psychological punishment: Each uniform came with a number instead of the prisoner's name, stripping inmates of their individuality and humanity.
By the mid-20th century, most American prisons had phased out stripes, along with brutal, archaic punishments like water torture. In the 1970s and early '80s, prisoners wore their own clothes in many institutions across the country. But the tough-on-crime laws of the '80s and '90s ushered in a new era of strict prison dress. In the early 2000s, California institutions banned non-prison-issued denim. Prisoners could no longer purchase Levi's, which had been a prized possession behind bars. The preferred denim pants were replaced with thin, blue polyester material.
In 2005, the California Department of Corrections added "and Rehabilitation" to its name, but shortly thereafter emblazoned CDCR Prisoner in bright yellow lettering across its standard blue uniforms.
"I think it's really ironic that the change in clothing came on the heels of this push for rehabilitation," says Lonnie Morris, a San Quentin inmate. "I think [the CDCR label] is demeaning. I think it says we are nothing but a number, that we're somebody's property."
But incarcerated men at San Quentin have always found ways to subvert the punitive dress code: shining their shoes with banana peels, hemming their pants, or folding and placing them under the mattress until they come out looking freshly ironed.
Last year, California announced that it would remove the labels in order to treat inmates as individuals, part of the recent push for prison reform with a renewed focus on rehabilitation.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.