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Life Inside

How a Borrowed Blazer, Tie and Dress Shirt Helped Me See Myself as a Man, Not a Prisoner

On a special visiting day at Washington Corrections Center, incarcerated men were able to dress up. This seemingly small change made a big difference.

An illustration shows a person in a khaki prison uniform standing in front of a mirror. In the mirror, the person adjusts their tie while wearing a navy blazer and white dress shirt.

The old saying “clothes make the man” reminds us that what we wear signals our status in the eyes of others. But during a recent event at Washington Corrections Center, a change in clothing helped me see myself as a man, not just as an “inmate.”

This story involves what the Washington state prison system calls a “Significant Woman” event. These special yearly visits give the incarcerated men a chance to honor the women in their lives — spouses, girlfriends, mothers, sisters. Some normal restrictions governing contact are lifted, allowing families and friends to connect with their incarcerated loved ones with a little less of an institutional feel. Prisoners and our families can sit close and put our arms around each other. We can walk around the room instead of being confined to one table. (There are also “Significant Man” events in women’s prisons.)

My transformative Significant Woman event took place at Washington Corrections Center last November. I awoke that Saturday excited about what the day would bring. It was a wet morning, and I paused to watch the raindrops hit my window and crawl across the glass in small streams. Then I grabbed my toothbrush, toothpaste and washrag and headed to the bathroom for my morning ritual.

Walking down the dimly-lit tier, a friend stopped me and asked, “Hey D-Jack, are you going to the Significant Woman event?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Who do you have coming, your wife or a girlfriend?”

I had no one in either category. The most significant woman in my life has been my mother, and it was only right that she had an opportunity to attend.

“My mom,” I shouted back.

As I brushed my teeth, I brooded over the absence of a wife or girlfriend. Who wouldn’t want to be able to see someone they’re in love with, even if it is in a place that does everything possible to prevent normal interactions? But in a few seconds, I let the thought go. I was looking forward to seeing my mother. She is the one woman who has loved me the most, standing by me despite my life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentence.

After brushing my teeth and washing my face, I went back to my cell to retrieve my shaving kit. I trimmed my beard, shaved my head, took a shower, then put on my khaki prison pants and white T-shirt. Then, I waited for the staff to call out my name for my visit.

On the five-minute walk from my unit to the visiting room, a fellow prisoner teased me for wearing a rain poncho; the drops earlier in the day had turned into a light drizzle. “I bet you feel real ridiculous right now,” a guy I’ll call K said.

He was right; I took off the poncho and stuffed it in my pocket. As we made our way past the imposing solitary confinement building adjacent to the visiting room, K told me how excited his wife was about the event.

When we reached the strip-out area of the visiting room, where strip searches are conducted after each visit, I noticed a lot of movement in the next room.

A correctional officer behind the desk soon asked me the usual questions: “Do you have a watch, ring, necklace or glasses?”

“No watch, no ring, no necklace, only glasses,” I replied, stretching out my arms and legs for the pat search.

With that ritual out of the way, I asked the CO what was going on in the next room. “I guess they brought you guys ties and dress shirts,” he said with a look of irritation on his face.

Inside that room was a rack with 50 or 60 white dress shirts, assorted blazers and ties. I wasn’t sure where I should start, so I watched two fellow prisoners help others find the right jacket and fix their ties.

“What do I do?” I asked one of the guys, who I’ll call D.

“Well, you can start by finding your size, idiot.”

“And you can shut the hell up,” I shot back, staring him down.

The room fell silent for a few seconds before D and I started laughing — we have that sort of relationship.

I found a tie and a blazer that I liked, and after a few minutes of searching, I landed on an XL shirt that fit correctly. I put on the tie, and another guy, V, helped me put on the jacket. Then I went into the bathroom to find a mirror.

What I saw in that mirror blew me away. I didn’t look like a prisoner anymore. For the first time in about 15 years, I was able to see the man I really am.

I entered the packed visiting room on Cloud 9 with my confidence high. I scanned the room but could not see my mother in the sea of people. Then I noticed my cellmate walking toward me wearing a gray blazer, burgundy tie and the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. He told me my mother was up front, next to him.

A few feet ahead, I finally saw my mom. She was talking with a guest at the next table. I snuck up behind her and placed my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me, a bit startled, then jumped out of her seat to give me the biggest hug she had in many years. I can’t say for sure what was on her mind at that moment, but I believe that seeing me outside of prison clothing made her extremely happy.

During that four-hour visit, we talked about our lives. I told her about my accomplishments in organizing and writing, and I shared my goal of earning a bachelor's degree in behavioral health and becoming a peer counselor. We also spoke about the distance between us and how hard my choices had been on her.

She shared how much she had feared for my life when I was out on the streets, and how that terror intensified when she got the phone call telling her that I had been arrested for murder and wouldn’t be coming home.

This was the first time my mother and I had such a deep discussion. Sometimes, it’s just easier not to talk about the emotional and financial burden that incarceration places on the people who care about us. About how our loved ones are doing time with us. Events like “Significant Woman” allow us to truly connect with them and let them know how much they matter.

While I knew I would connect with my mom that day, I was surprised by what a difference a few articles of clothing made. Seeing us all dressed nicely and feeling normal not only shifted my sense of myself, it changed how I thought about my fellow prisoners. It’s too easy — even for those of us who are incarcerated — to define others by the worst things they’ve done. That day, I just saw people.

It was the closest thing to freedom I had felt in a long time.

As the Significant Woman event ended around 2:30, and correctional officers began shooing our visitors out of the door, I thought about what prison garb takes from us psychologically. Fences and concrete walls are not the only thing that keep us trapped. These uniforms strip away our uniqueness, and they relentlessly remind us of our confinement.

If I wore a business suit, a judge’s robe, a lab coat or a military uniform, I would feel the pride and sense of purpose that comes with those clothes. I would feel connected to and responsible for my company, community, country, and to the larger world. Prison garb makes me feel insecure, like less than the person I know myself to be.

When I hugged my mother goodbye and watched her walk out of the sliding glass door, I felt pride and gratitude that she could see me as more than a prisoner. Then I turned toward the door that would take me back to the reality of my daily life, still in prison but much more aware that I am bigger than my incarceration.

Darrell Jackson is a member of the Black Prisoners Caucus, co-chair of T.E.A.C.H (Taking Education and Creating History) and a writer through Empowerment Avenue. He is a student, mentor and social justice advocate who is currently serving a life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentence at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington. For more information, follow him on X/Twitter at @DKJackson20.