First the clothes, then the future

People who have been in prison or in homeless shelters often want nothing more than to clothe themselves in brand new lives. But rebuilding after years of failure or bad choices isn't easy, even if they have help. (See story at right.) That's why, for many people, putting on a new outfit can be such a powerful, motivating act.

At the women's prison where I volunteer, inmates who are near the end of their sentences often talk about their plans. They'll mention where they're going to live and what kind of job they hope to find.

But then they'll go on and on about the things they've been longing to do: Get a real cup of coffee and buy some new clothes.

One inmate spent 20 minutes telling me about the mocha something she wanted and about a style of pants she just had to have. She had told me earlier that she would be leaving the prison with only about $50. The mocha, the pants, and a taxi ride to the mall would just about leave her broke.

This woman was usually quite sensible, and she'd worked hard to prepare for release. So I gently asked about the cost of her outing.

"You don't understand," she said. "When I leave here, I'll be wearing the same clothes I had on when I got busted three years ago."

Ex-cons, she told me, want to peel off every reminder of prison as soon as they can. They want to forget the hospital-style scrubs they wear as inmates and the big white letters – DOC – across their backs.

She knew that she'd never escape those letters completely. They will follow her to job interviews.

"But if I'm looking good," she said, "people will see me first."

She had a point. Clothes can't make the woman, but they might give the world a hint of who she has become.

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