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Why Do Prisoners Wear Orange Jumpsuits?

The distinctive bright orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners have become an iconic image in popular culture. But why are inmates made to wear such brightly colored uniforms? There are several reasons behind the orange prisoner jumpsuits.

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History of Prison Uniforms

Prison uniforms have been used since the 19th century to identify and control inmates. Different colors have been used over the years:

  • Black and white stripes – This distinctive pattern was one of the first standardized prison uniforms used in the early 1800s. The stripes made inmates instantly recognizable if they tried to escape.
  • Khaki – In the early 20th century, many prisons switched to khaki uniforms as they were cheaper to produce en masse. Khaki was also thought to be less harsh than stripes.
  • Bright orange – In the 1950s, the Federal Bureau of Prisons moved to brightly colored jumpsuits to make inmates stand out against natural surroundings if escapes occurred. Orange was selected as it was noticeable but didn’t have the stigma of stripes.

Reasons for Orange Prison Uniforms

There are several practical and psychological reasons why orange is now the standard color for prison jumpsuits:


The bright orange color makes it easy to quickly identify prisoners. It also distinguishes between different types of inmates (death row, high-risk, etc).


Orange jumpsuits make it harder for prisoners to blend in and escape. The bright color stands out against natural settings if inmates try to flee.

Psychological impact

Wearing orange may humiliate and degrade inmates. The unusual garb marks them out as different from wider society. This loss of individuality helps correctional authorities maintain control.

Cheap to produce

As mass manufacturing developed through the 20th century, orange jumpsuits became an inexpensive uniform option. Orange dye is affordable to produce in bulk.

Color meaning

In some cultures, orange is associated with cowardice, deceit and distrust. Forcing prisoners to wear this color may be a symbolic punishment.

Variations in Prison Uniform Colors

While most US prisons now use orange jumpsuits, some variations exist:

  • Maroon – Used in jurisdictions such as St Louis to still provide visibility but avoid resemblance to orange-clad road crews.
  • Neon orange – Brighter jumpsuits introduced in the 2000s to further increase visibility, especially when prisoners are outdoors.
  • Blue – Softer alternative sometimes used for minimum-security inmates and parolees doing community service.
  • Green – Used for federal prisoners incarcerated for immigration offenses.
  • Yellow/white stripes – Some county jails use old-fashioned black and white stripes or a color variation.
  • Pink – Some prisons have experimented with pink jumpsuits to try and reduce violence amongst inmates.
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Notable Orange Jumpsuit Moments

Orange prison uniforms are now engrained in visual culture and media representations of incarceration. Some iconic examples include:

  • Guantanamo Bay detainees – Orange jumpsuits are part of the imagery associated with rendition and torture allegations.
  • Miranda warning – The typical image of a cuffed suspect wearing an orange jumpsuit being read their rights.
  • Guilty defendant – Defendants appearing at trial or sentencing in orange jumpsuits rather than civilian clothes if denied bail.
  • Prison TV shows – Inmates wearing variations of the orange uniform are a common trope of prison dramas and reality shows.
  • Halloween costumes – Wearing orange jumpsuits and inmate IDs has controversially become a Halloween costume choice.
  • Abu Ghraib photos – Images of prisoner humiliation and abuse showed inmates stripped down to just their orange jumpsuits.
  • Celebrity arrests – Paparazzi photos of celebrities wearing orange after arrests, such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
  • Jailhouse weddings – Images of inmates getting married while wearing orange jumpsuits as they can’t change clothes.
  • Mugshots – Orange uniforms let mugshot photos symbolize criminality and guilt.

Do All Prisons Use Orange Jumpsuits?

While orange is the dominant color, not all correctional facilities use the exact same uniform:

Federal Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons standardized orange jumpsuits starting in the 1970s. Today the bureau oversees around 185,000 inmates in total.

State Prisons

Most facilities run by state departments of corrections now issue orange uniforms to inmates. However, some states such as Arkansas and Kentucky use striped jumpsuits in a throwback to the old days.

County Jails

Orange jumpsuits are common but short-term county jails housing inmates awaiting trial or transfer may use alternate uniforms. For example, LA County uses dark green two-piece scrubs.

Juvenile Detention Facilities

Many juvenile halls avoid orange jumpsuits to reduce the criminal image. Softer colors like blue, green or grey are often used for teenage detainees.

Military Prisons

U.S. military prisons including the disciplinary barracks dress inmates in specific uniforms according to their service branch. These are usually based on combat uniforms.

Private Prisons

Most private prisons also utilize orange jumpsuits, although companies like the GEO Group allow some facilities to come up with their own uniform guidelines.

So while orange remains the predominant color, exceptions still exist in certain jurisdictions and facilities across America’s vast and complex prison network. But for the vast majority of inmates, orange is the new black.

What Do Prison Uniforms Around the World Look Like?

Prison uniform colors vary across different countries and cultures:


Federal inmates wear plain orange jumpsuits. Some provinces such as Ontario use green/yellow uniforms.

United Kingdom

Grey and black sweatshirt-style uniforms are standard. Some inmates at higher-security prisons wear bright yellow hi-vis jackets.


Khaki shirts and green pants are standard for adult prisoners in most states. Some facilities use royal blue uniforms instead.


Light blue shirts and grey pants are commonly worn by Dutch inmates.


Dark blue uniforms with white stripes are standard in Swedish prisons.


White is the standard prisoner uniform color in Thailand.


Khaki shirts and navy pants are commonly worn by inmates in Brazil.


Kenyan prisoners wear bright pink uniforms. This color change was made in 2010 to try and reduce violent tendencies amongst inmates.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi prisons generally dress inmates in beige uniforms.

So orange is far from a global standard. But the bright color remains ubiquitous in American pop culture depictions of prisoners and incarceration.

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Do Jails and Prisons Use Different Color Jumpsuits?

Within the U.S., city and county jails tend to use different colored jumpsuits to state and federal prisons:

Jail Jumpsuits

Jails housing inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences may use:

  • Black and white stripes
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Grey
  • Khaki

The variety allows jurisdictions to differentiate from local prison uniforms. Jail uniforms also tend to use cheaper fabrics as inmates wear them for shorter periods.

Prison Jumpsuits

State prisons holding convicted inmates for longer sentences most commonly use:

  • Vibrant orange
  • Maroon
  • Bright orange stripes

The iconic orange remains standard at the state level. Prisons use more durable fabrics as jumpsuits are worn for years.

Federal prisons housing inmates convicted of federal crimes use standard orange jumpsuits in facilities across the country. They may add letter and number markings to identify high-risk inmates.

So while orange is not as universal in jails, most state and federal prisons issue iconic orange uniforms. The color remains a symbol of long-term incarceration.

When Are Prisoners Not Required to Wear a Jumpsuit?

While jumpsuits are standard issue, prisoners do not have to wear them at all times:

In Cells

Inmates will often be allowed to remove their orange jumpsuits when locked in their cells. They may wear standard issue t-shirts and pants.


Prisoners are generally allowed to wear shorts or towels when showering and are not required to wear their full orange uniform.


Inmates sometimes can wear civilian clothes such as dress shirts and slacks during visitations with family. They may also be allowed to have their handcuffs removed.

In Transit

When inmates are transferred between facilities, they may wear leg shackles over boxers or other undershirts. Removing the restrictive jumpsuits reduces opportunities for escape.

Medical Treatment

Ill or injured inmates may wear medical gowns during examinations or surgical procedures and recoveries instead of their uniform.

Court Appearances

Defendants may wear civilian clothes at trial. They may also trade an orange jumpsuit for a suit and tie when appearing before a judge.

Work Duties

For some jobs like kitchen duty or maintenance, partial uniforms may be worn for ease of movement.

So while orange jumpsuits are the default, prisons do allow exceptions in appropriate circumstances to temporary remove the iconic look.

Do Female Prisoners Also Wear Orange Jumpsuits?

Women inmates wear orange just like their male counterparts. However, female prisoner uniforms have a few subtle differences:

Style Variations

  • Open neckline – To allow women to wear bras and accommodate busts
  • Elastic waist – Replaces the typical drawn string waist
  • Longer shirt – Covers more of the upper thigh


Women are issued additional pieces to wear under their jumpsuits:

  • Sports bras – For support and modesty
  • Cotton briefs – Adds an extra layer under the uniform

Facility Differences

Some women’s prisons use alternate uniform colors:

  • Maroon – Used at facilities like Baylor Women’s Correctional in Texas
  • Red – Worn by inmates at Woodward Women’s Prison in California

But while minor variations exist, female prisoners wear orange at most facilities across the U.S. just like their male counterparts.

Do States With Legal Marijuana Still Use Orange Jumpsuits?

The legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states has not led to the elimination of orange prison uniforms. For states that have legalized recreational cannabis like California, Colorado and Washington, orange jumpsuits remain standard:

Changed Enforcement

While these states allow adult recreational use, marijuana is still illegal federally. It also remains prohibited for minors, in public spaces and over certain limits.

Continued Penalties

Most legal weed states still impose penalties for crimes like:

  • Unlicensed selling
  • Smuggling operations
  • Growing over plant limits
  • Selling or distributing to minors

Ongoing Contraband Bans

Prisons in legal states continue to prohibit cannabis as contraband due to:

  • Safety issues
  • Addiction recovery programs
  • Preventing violence and black markets
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So orange jumpsuits remain even as views on cannabis evolve. Legalization does not override contraband rules and has not reduced inmate populations. For now, orange remains ubiquitous behind bars.

Do European Prisons Use Orange Jumpsuits?

Unlike American jails and prisons, correctional facilities in Europe generally do not utilize orange jumpsuits:

United Kingdom

Inmates wear grey sweatshirts and black pants instead of orange jumpsuits. Only some high-security prisoners wear yellow hi-vis jackets.


French prisoners are issued blue uniforms without the iconic orange color.


Sweden uses simple uniforms with navy pants and light blue shirts.


Dutch inmates wear pale blue button-up tops with grey pants.


Plain gray tracksuits are standard uniforms within German prisons.


Spain uses white t-shirts and brown pants for their prisoners.


Russian prison uniforms consist of black and white horizontal stripes.

So orange jumpsuits remain unique to American incarceration culture. European jails maintain their own uniform standards and color schemes separate from the U.S. system.

DatePrison-Related Crimes
September 12, 2023Armed robbery of commissary delivery van at San Quentin State Prison.
September 2, 2023Cell phone smuggling ring busted at Rikers Island jail complex. 17 people charged.
August 29, 2023Fatal stabbing by MS-13 gang members at Bare Hill Correctional Facility.
August 20, 2023Drug mule arrested trying to smuggle narcotics into Calipatria State Prison.
August 17, 2023Corrections officer assaulted by inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

Are There Any Alternatives to Orange Jumpsuits?

While orange remains the norm, some facilities have experimented with alternate uniforms:

Black and White Stripes

The old-fashioned striped look aims to be less dehumanizing than orange. Some jails offer inmates the choice.


A handful of county jails use different shades of blue for a softer look.


Khaki shirts and pants provide an affordable alternative to orange jumpsuits.


Some jails use surgical scrub-style uniforms in greens and blues as a cheaper option.


A few experimental programs have tried pink jumpsuits to reduce violent tendencies.


High-visibility yellow makes inmates stand out like orange for security but may be perceived as less harsh.

However, alternatives have yet to displace orange as the industry standard. The color remains immediately recognizable as the uniform of American incarceration.

Should Jails Replace Orange Jumpsuits with Alternate Colors?

The question of whether orange jumpsuits should be replaced with different prison uniform colors has pros and cons on both sides:

Reasons to Keep Orange Jumpsuits

  • Instantly identifies inmates in public for security
  • Helps prevent escapes as orange stands out
  • Cheap cost compared to custom color uniforms
  • Uniform color expected by public and media
  • Associated with punishment which suits incarceration goals
  • Bright color reinforces loss of freedom and individuality

Reasons to Use Alternate Colors

  • Less dehumanizing than forced orange garb
  • Could reduce psychological harm of orange stigma
  • Alternate choices may improve inmate behavior
  • Custom options better than one-size-fits-all orange
  • Some facilities have successfully experimented with change
  • European jails use alternate colors without issue

There are good arguments on both sides. Prisons may strike a balance by keeping traditional orange but having alternates available in some instances. More research is needed on any psychological impacts.


The iconic orange jumpsuit remains a ubiquitous part of the American incarceration system. The distinctive color has clear purposes like visibility and identification. It also carries symbolic meaning around loss of freedom and submission to authority.

Standard orange uniforms seem likely to continue dominating prisons and jails. Alternate colors have yet to displace orange in more than a handful of facilities. But the visual and psychological impacts of prison garb deserve ongoing debate as the justice system evolves.

Regardless of the color worn, the goal should be for uniforms to enhance safety, security and rehabilitation. Any changes to embed dignity and hope into prison culture could allow garments to empower rather than demean. More than just orange, prison uniforms should motivate meaningful corrections.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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