344 | Fashionably Odd

August 17, 2014
Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
Letter #344: Fashionably Odd


Dear Family,

Years ago, prisoners could wear just about anything their family purchased and sent to them, once every three months. Styles varied widely from Western to Punk, and every color imaginable could be worn. The classic black and white striped outfits, popular mostly in County Jails, was a thing of the distant past. Up until recently, inmates could wear long-sleeve shirts and denim jeans. Then, under the pretext of colors being gang-related, all California prisoners now wear blue, and all additional personal clothing (shoes, shorts, T-shirts, hats, socks, underwear, and glasses) must be white, gray, or black. My florescent, Santa Claus, and glow-in-the-dark boxers from home would never be accepted here, banished in the name of “sameness.” Gone, too, are personal packages from home. Instead, approved vendors must be used, and items must be chosen from extremely limited selections.

Despite the reduction to a bland wardrobe of greys and whites under our private-prison garb of beige “scrubs” straight from the fashion pages of an Egyptian hospital, I am in no danger of losing my sense of individuality and fashion-forwardness. (I have obviously not lost my ability to make up my own vocabulary as needed, either.) I’m content with what I have, aware that my choices are rather limited for the foreseeable future, and I won’t have to wear these drab colors forever, is what I keep telling myself. Well, until recently.

A few weeks prior to my birthday in June, without notice, warning, or provocation, a quarterly package showed up with my name on it, sent by my twin and his wife. Inside that 30-pound box were bunches of delicious items like beans and chocolate, which I realized I shouldn’t eat together. And in amongst the goodies was an entire head-to-toe outfit—in prison-approved black, white, and grey—for me to wear. Nike socks and moisture-wicking shorts, comfortable sandals and a ballcap were just a few of the surprises packed inside. I was shocked and surprised, and I couldn’t wait to proudly wear them in our dayroom and at yard. Then I saw the sunglasses.

Plastic, white, and unbelievably large, I couldn’t understand why my brother would have done such a thing as send me such crazy-odd looking shades. I called him as soon as I had a moment, ostensibly to thank him for the grand surprise of the birthday gifts they’d so generously sent, but truly to get to the bottom of the ridiculously massive sunglasses caper. I couldn’t bear to even see my reflection with them on, and I had to know why this choice. Why now? Why me? I delicately broached the subject with “So, hey, those sunglasses … they sure are interesting.” Not my best, but all I could muster.

“Oh, yeah! I’ve got a pair just like ’em,” Michael enthusiastically told me. “They’re really popular right now.”

I couldn’t think of anyone in prison who had a pair, but if he said they’re popular, I had to take his word on it. Maybe they are a big hit at those Egyptian hospitals. Who knows. In any case, I thanked him for the gifts and started wearing my massive white sunglasses. Everywhere.

Within a month, I began noticing officers wearing white shades, and a couple of inmates have similar styles, but none as big as mine. You can spot me from a mile away, hiding behind frames that it looks like I stole from The Muppets in 3D movie. And I’m happy.

It seems to me that all gifts—physical or spiritual—should be used and enjoyed, not because we like them, want them, or know we need them, but because the giver thought it best for us to have them.