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Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation of Social Hierarchy Through Dress

96 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2012 Last revised: 10 Oct 2012

Gabriel Arkles

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: September 2012


This Article examines the enforcement of racialized gender norms through the regulation of dress in prisons. Dress, including hair and clothing, is central to the ways government and other institutions enforce hierarchical social norms based on the intersection of race and gender, as well as religion, sexuality, class, age, and disability. For many people, dress is a way to express identity, exercise autonomy, practice religion, participate politically, experience pleasure, preserve health, and/or avoid violence. My review of prison dress regulations shows that prison systems commonly impose penalties including solitary confinement for deviations from dominant social norms, such as wearing hair in an Afro, covering hair with a headscarf, or having long hair if incarcerated as a man. I situate prison rules in the historical context of dress regulation and prison evolution in the United States. The justifications that prison officials offer for these rules, including repression of homosexuality and group affiliation, prevention of attacks and escapes, and promotion of hygiene and rehabilitation, raise normative and instrumental concerns. Nonetheless, courts frequently diminish individual and community interests in dress while deferring to prison regulations that lack a complete or credible justification. I propose an integrated approach to change through policy amendments, doctrinal shifts, and broader grassroots efforts for social transformation consistent with a goal of prison abolition.

Keywords: prison, gender, race, hair, clothing, regulation, criminal, law

Suggested Citation

Arkles, Gabriel, Correcting Race and Gender: Prison Regulation of Social Hierarchy Through Dress (September 2012). New York University Law Review, Vol. 87, 2012; NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 12-49. Available at SSRN:

Gabriel Arkles (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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