Krystal Hur: Romanticizing incarceration

Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 4:21pm

College students love their themed parties — so when Halloweekend comes around, many pull out all the stops to dress in a multitude of dazzling costumes that will inevitably end up contributing to a never-ending stream of Halloween posts on Instagram. Some popular costumes I spotted this year were boxers, devils and, of course,  all kinds of feline ceatures. While these costumes certainly were not very original, I thought they were fun, and the people wearing them looked great.

In contrast, a costume that I did not like was one I saw many people wearing – a prisoner costume. Not only is dressing up as a prisoner for Halloween in poor taste, it’s also incredibly offensive. An orange jumpsuit isn’t some quirky, sexy outfit that people should parade around in for fun, and wearing it while toting matching handcuffs discounts how terrifying and degrading it is for many who actually do get arrested and sentenced to prison. Prisoners are real people, many of whom have been unfairly sentenced by a deeply flawed justice system, and to wear the attire that represents their sentence for the sake of having a fun costume is offensive. Conversely, dressing up as prisoners and portraying them as pitiable people is also problematic, because that reduces all prisoners to helpless populations rather than individuals.

We can see how flawed the United States justice system is when we examine famous statistics and cases: The U.S. has about 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  Young white men like Brock Turner are imprisoned for only three months after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, whereas young Black boys like Trayvon Martin are shot (the shooter George Zimmerman found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter). Alice Marie Johnson, a Black 63-year-old woman, was only granted clemency from a life sentence for a non-violent, first time drug offense after Kim Kardashian used her celebrity status to appeal to the president. This isn’t to say all police officers are racist and violent and everyone who is a part of the justice system is corrupt. Of course there are plenty of good people in the justice system — but the flaws that plague it are also plentiful and obvious.

So when people dress up as prisoners for Halloween and pretend to get arrested for the sake of some likes on Instagram, they are making a mockery of actual prisoners and how the justice system has failed so many people, even if they don’t mean to do so. It’s not “just a costume” because of the history of injustice that permeates even to a fake prisoner’s jumpsuit, and it doesn’t matter that the people wearing such a costume don’t mean to offend, because intent doesn’t change effect.

A reason why people may believe prisoner costumes are appropriate may be due to the romanticization of prison life in recent years. TV shows such as “Orange is the New Black” and documentaries such as “Making a Murderer” are incredibly popular, as are crime shows. Jeremy Meeks, otherwise known as “Hot Felon” or “Prison Bae,” went viral because of his good looks (and is somehow now dating the heiress of TopShop). People are intrigued by prison life and the justice system because of how mysterious and almost glamorous the whole process seems. Is the accused truly guilty? How can the lawyers convince others of their client’s innocence? People live out their Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes fantasies while they watch murder mystery types of shows and try to figure out the truth, and shows like “Orange is the New Black” offer them a glimpse into a life they have always been warned against living. Whether these shows mean to romanticize prison life and the processes that occur in the justice system, impressionable viewers are free to perceive them however they want to.

The popularity of prison-related media complicates the question of whether dressing up as a prisoner is acceptable when we examine generic costumes versus specific costumes. While dressing up as a generic prisoner is offensive, is dressing up as Piper from “Orange is the New Black” just as insensitive? This is a bit of a gray area, because dressing up as a specific character means representing only that one character rather than an entire group of people, and those who choose to put in the effort to dress up as a specific character usually tend to have a general respect for that character that shows in their costume. In this case, the portrayal of the character matters more than the character itself: For example, dressing up as a hyper-sexualized version of Piper would be offensive, because doing so would essentially turn the costume into a caricature of the character and implies Piper’s life as a prisoner is glamorous. Once again, the person shouldn’t reenact any gory or sensitive scenes for any reason, such as for the sake of a “cool” photo.

In the end, it all boils down to using good judgement. Halloween should be enjoyable, and perhaps taking care to not wear offensive costumes takes away from that, but wearing offensive costumes has deeper, more hurtful implications. It’s not difficult to make sure a costume isn’t offensive, and the payoff is well worth the effort. So please, don’t dress up as a prisoner for Halloween.

 

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.

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