LUDLOW (AP) — A western Massachusetts prison believes dressing for success can help inmates break the stranglehold of addiction.
Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe Jr. requires inmates at his jail’s minimum-security substance abuse treatment facility wear a shirt and tie from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Ashe recently announced that the policy, which has been in place since 2007, will remain in effect as the Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center moves from its longtime home in downtown Springfield to a temporary location in nearby Holyoke.
The modest requirement plays a big role in uplifting inmates, giving them pride and purpose as they prepare to return to society — hopefully for good, the longtime prison overseer said.
“The idea behind it is to show we’re serious about what we do here,” Ashe said on a recent prison tour. “We want to get rid of that stinking thinking that really got them here — the alcoholism, the long periods of irresponsibility. We’re setting a high standard and striving toward excellence and accountability. We’re telling them that there’s no easy way. Every day, we must fight the good fight.”
Inmates said they’ve come to see the value in the shirt-and-tie rule, even if it took some time to adjust.
“The only times I wore a shirt and a tie was when I was in court or a funeral,” said Christian, 28, who is serving about ten months for an assault-and-battery-related charge. “Wearing it on a daily basis made me feel a little better about myself. Basically, it’s up to me if I want to change. It’s time for me to step up.”
Andres, a 29-year-old serving a year for a deadly DUI crash, proudly laid out a pair of dark dress shirts for ironing in his cell one recent afternoon.
“I have three shirts, three ties. We trade them around sometimes,” he said. “It makes you feel more successful. Or like you’re working toward it, you know?”
Andres’ 57-year-old roommate, Bob, who has served a year in prison for a serious DUI accident, nodded in agreement: “It helped me get back into a better routine. It got me feeling a little better. A different state of mind.”
Under prison policy, inmates did not give their last names during interviews and their faces were not photographed.
Prison staffers say many inmates initially balk at the dress code because they’ve simply never learned how to put on a tie. Staff or older inmates typically have to teach them.
“In the beginning, it’s always a struggle,” says Andrew Teasley, a corrections counselor. “But once they see how it looks — when they realize they can wear it with jeans and that it looks kind of sharp — they begin to embrace it.”
Some inmates have even taken to wearing their new wardrobes beyond the required times, such as during family visits, he said.
“It’s really big for the children. To not see them in a jumpsuit. They can say, ‘See? Daddy’s in school. Or daddy’s in treatment and he’ll be out soon,'” Teasley said.
Della Blake, the addiction center’s director, suggests the program is unique in Massachusetts and, perhaps, the country.
The center even has a special arrangement with the Salvation Army, where inmates perform community service in return for the center receiving a $5,000 clothing voucher at their thrift stores.
Blake sees the dress code as a counterpoint to policies enacted at other prisons to humiliate inmates.
In Arizona, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has famously issued pink underwear to male inmates for years, on top of making hundreds of them stay in an outdoor tent city in the desert heat.
“You can’t shame people into change,” Blake said. “You’ve got to think of who you’re dealing with. Sometimes they come from poverty, abuse or neglect. So you have to teach them a different way. Shaming them is not teaching them anything.”
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