Stripes in North Dakota Prisons
Every human society needs rules and laws. But always there will be lawbreakers who violate those laws. Crime brings punishment. In North Dakota, criminals have faced punishment in county jails and in the state’s penitentiary in Bismarck. Today’s Datebook looks at one aspect of punishment – prison uniforms – as it relates to one escapade by an escapee.
In 1894, the North Dakota Penitentiary bought “one hundred suits of regulation striped clothing” so prisoners would thereafter “wear stripes.”
These new prison uniforms were made of cloth with wide dark-gray stripes alternating with narrow light-gray stripes. Typically, these prison stripes were horizontal, not vertical. Previously, the inmates had been wearing “blue overalls and dark flannel-shirts,” clothes that any ordinary laborer might have worn.
The biggest reason for “striped-suits” was to make escape more difficult, allowing citizens and pursuing officers to more-easily identify escapees. The striped uniforms were also “badges of disgrace” to shame criminals into improving their lives.
Some sources say striped uniforms intentionally resembled prison bars, or that the stripes symbolized the ancient practice of 40 lashes, leaving a criminal’s back striped with scarring.
The main reason for stripes, however, was to identify escaped prisoners. On this date, in 1897, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Eugene Gould, imprisoned for grand-larceny, had run away from a work-crew wearing the regulation prison stripes and a low-crowned black hat. People were to look for a man who stood “five-feet-four inches in height, light haired, with large nose and mouth.” Pursuers expected the escapee might have gotten other clothes, but, fortunately, police caught Gould in the brush a few miles from Bismarck.
Even though prison stripes helped betray escaped convicts, the penitentiary eventually switched to less-humiliating clothes. By 1912, all prisoners wore uniforms of plain gray cloth with shoulder straps. But, if a man violated rules, he had to wear gray clothing without the straps. And if an inmate attempted escape, he was forced to wear the traditional striped-suit with a “yellow-streak up the back” as a dastardly mark of dishonor. Later reforms eliminated all prison stripes.
In modern times, jailers supply highly-visible orange jumpsuits. Strangely, these convicts actually could escape more easily – because citizens could mistake escapees for sanitation, utility or highway workers. In fact, the criminal justice system has brought back the old-fashioned striped clothes in some cases – for the desperados considered most-likely-to-flee.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department
“Escaped Convict,” Bismarck Tribune, August 24, 1897, p. 3.
“Will Wear Stripes,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, March 9, 1894, p. 2.
“Eugene Gould,” Dickinson Press, August 28, 1897, p. 4.
“Eugene Gould Plead Guilty,” Bismarck Tribune, July 7, 1899, p. 8.
“Convicts Were Court Martialed,” Bismarck Tribune, September 4, 1912, p. 4.
“Glimpse Behind Prison Walls,” Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], August 17, 1911, p. 6.
“Hellstrom’s Record,” Langdon Courier Democrat, October 3, 1912, p. 3.
“History of the North Dakota State Penitentiary,” www.docs.nd.gov, accessed July 24, 2020.
“Not Guilty Pleas Entered in Exploitation Case,” Bismarck Tribune, June 13, 2018, p. B2.
James MacPherson, “Man, Fiancee Sentenced to Life in Couple’s Death,” Bismarck Tribune, May 14, 2008, p. 15.
Mike Albrecht, “Prison . . . Assault,” Bismarck Tribune, February 13, 2003, p. 11.
“Suspect Briefly Escapes From Police,” Bismarck Tribune, April 18, 2013, p. 12.
“Prison Stripes,” Princeton [MN] Union, February 2, 1905, p. 8.
Volcano Marshall, “Incident of One Day in a Striped Suit in Oahu,” Honolulu Republican, October 14, 1900, p. 1.
Jan Fox, “Uniformity Rules,” Index on Censorship, vol. 45, issue 4, December 1, 2016, p. 50-53.
Thomas Vinciguerra, “The Clothes That Make the Inmate,” New York Times, October 1, 2000, p. WK2.