Two jack-o'-lanterns on a front porch

Why You Should Not Dress as a “Prisoner” or “Inmate” This Halloween

What costume are you wearing this Halloween?

The lives led by incarcerated individuals often go unnoticed in our society. The cruel reality of their experiences becomes overshadowed by societal stereotypes and even jokes. Halloween—a holiday we dedicate to fun, imagination, and seasonal festivities—can often become a platform for these overshadowings, particularly when people choose to dress up in “prisoner” or “inmate” costumes. When we understand the full reality of the prison industrial complex, it becomes very clear that this costume choice, with or without bad intentions, is a display of insensitivity toward the profound abuses endured by incarcerated individuals, a subtle act of tolerance toward sexual assault, a perpetuation of racially insensitive commentary, and, ultimately, a reflection of privilege that either turns a blind eye to or actively dismisses oppressive powers.

When we consider the deeper meaning of what might seem like a comedic costume choice, it’s crucial to acknowledge the devastating effects it has on our communities and, from that, take initiatives to ensure Halloween is celebrated in a way that is mindful and empathetic.

Let’s take a closer look at why you should not dress up in a “prisoner” or “inmate” costume.

Mocks Real-Life Experiences

The prison industrial complex and mass incarceration are heavily complex and traumatic topics that can have a tremendous impact on the individuals and communities who experience the system’s effects in any capacity. Whether a person has been incarcerated, has an incarcerated family member or loved one, or otherwise spends time behind bars, seeing someone dress up as a prisoner for an ironic joke can be a painful visualization of an extremely dark and vulnerable moment in their life.

For people who have been incarcerated, it mocks their traumatic experiences and reduces their abuse to a punchline. For people who have an incarcerated parent, sibling, spouse, or friend, it can provoke emotional distress over the relationship they lost and how their lives have been complicated.

Those who decide to dress up in prisoner costumes without acknowledging the gravity of what it means to be incarcerated display a lack of empathy for the genuine challenges that many people face within the justice system and the chain of lives that are at stake when a person is incarcerated. From wrongful convictions to inadequate legal representation and harsh sentencing—these are not the kinds of experiences that should be reduced to costumes.

Perpetuates Stereotypes and Reflects Cultural Insensitivity

Prison Policy reports that 56% of the US prison population is comprised of Black and Hispanic men and 48% of people in prison serving life sentences are Black. Minority communities are disproportionately represented in prison and jail populations, meaning that dressing as a prisoner greatly intersects with acts of racism and ethnic insensitivity.

Prisoner costumes themselves have been historically utilized as a medium to carry out racist commentary, as these costumes are often performed in blackface to this day. The major danger in perpetuating such privileged, racist stereotypes about individuals who have been incarcerated is that it reinforces stigmas that people of color are dangerous, further dehumanizing those who have already been victimized by major social and racial inequalities.

Trivializes Serious Issues and Abuses Privilege

The criminal justice system is intertwined with systemic inequalities, poverty, and violence. Reducing it to a costume trivializes the struggles and challenges faced by individuals who have been through the system as well as the more significant societal problems related to crime and punishment.

Overlooking such a deeply traumatic and prevalent problem in our society displays one’s privilege of having the choice to overlook the violence, racism, and economic disparities that affect over 1.9 million people in the US.

When you dress up as a prisoner, it is a way of declaring your tolerance or ignorance toward abusive powers, racist structures, and human suffering.

Sexualizes Victims of Assault

The history of the prison system, the people affected by it, and sexual assault can be charted back decades, as pipelines to prison after sexual assault continue to grow. 86% of women in prison have experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and in a study done out of a New York prison, The National Institute of Justice found that 68% of incarcerated adult males reported some form of early childhood victimization, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect.

When we consider the criminalization of sex workers, the incarceration of hundreds of domestic violence victims who acted in self-defense, and the thousands of assaults that occur behind bars at the hands of fellow incarcerated people and prison staff, it feels extremely out of place to glamorize or poke fun at these victims.

The “sexy prisoner” costume makes a mockery of the violence, sexual assault, and mental health struggles that are highly prevalent in prison settings, all while sexualizing the concept of imprisonment and further objectifying people in prison. This gesture is blatantly disrespectful to survivors of sexual assault as it perpetuates the harmful idea that lack of consent or agency over one’s body is something that can be glamorized or fetishized rather than criticized and condemned.

This Halloween, Choose Another Costume

In making mindful choices about our Halloween costumes, we wield the power to foster empathy, dismantle harmful stereotypes, and advocate for a more just and inclusive society.

Opting against dressing as a “prisoner” or “inmate” for Halloween is a step toward the acknowledgement of the very real struggles faced by survivors, incarcerated individuals, and their families. More importantly, it is an assertion that we will not be complicit in perpetuating harm but instead will strive for a society that champions understanding, dismantles harmful ideologies, and stands firmly against the tolerance of abusive powers.

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