Uniforms: Identity, pride and discipline

Police officers, soldiers, firemen, nurses, security guards, scouts and guides, as well as prison officers wear uniforms which make them easily recognizable in a professional setting. Some of these professionals also wear or carry identity cards and badges, but it’s the uniform which is usually distinctive, that identifies them as the person who should be sought out or deferred to depending on the situation.

In Guyana, uniform and identity go a step further. Many business places, banks in particular and government departments also require staff, especially female staff, to wear uniforms; male staff might be expected to adhere to a dress code. Again, this makes them clearly identifiable to members of the public seeking their services and among the uniformed creates a sense of belonging.

Guyana also has a long history of school uniforms being compulsory. Students attending public and private schools up to the secondary level are required to wear uniforms to school. In some instances, this is even extended to those attending classes on Saturdays and during periods when schools are officially closed, because they need extra tutoring to write national or other examinations or to be brought up to scratch in subject areas where they might have shown a weakness during regular school periods.

For the most part, Guyanese students seem content with their uniforms. In many cases they are proud to wear them and to identify with their school colours.

For instance, one hears past and current President’s College students refer to themselves as ‘Purple Nation’ – part of the school uniform is purple. Queen’s College students say they are “repping [representing] Black and Gold”, the school’s colours.

In the past too, no matter how much they hated headwear, girls were proud to don the straw hat that came with the Bishops’ High School uniform, even if they mostly slung the ties around their necks and wore the hats on their shoulders. Hats are no longer part of the Bishops’ High uniform, but none of the pride of belonging seems to have been lost.

Similar experiences have been noticed among students of several other schools around the country. The pride of identifying with and belonging to a school community heightens when the school/its students excel academically, at sports or other non-curricular activities.

Many studies done over the years have also pointed to school uniforms being a source of encouraging discipline and positively impacting attendance. Whilst some children will play hooky (be truants) regardless, those who do so in their uniforms are more easily seen and reported on. Studies have also affirmed school uniforms as promoting socioeconomic equality, the rationale being that if all students wore the same thing, affluence or lack of it would not be able to intrude on the learning environment. This works to some extent, particularly where schools are also rigid as regards footwear, which discourages the ostentation associated with donning expensive brands for the purpose of style and advertisement rather than utility and comfort.

On the other hand, there have also been studies done which indicate that the rigidity of uniforms quells students’ creativity and forces them to suppress their sense of identity. Many learning institutions as a result, particularly public schools in North America, discourage a uniform policy. This has not been without its successes, but there have been pitfalls and most private schools in North America insist on uniforms.

There is one other category of persons among whom uniform use must be addressed here: prison inmates. The events of July 9, apart from destroying the prison and facilitating an escape, also brought to light another fact resulting from poor funding of the prison system: uniforms for inmates are in short supply.

Acting Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels confessed that there were not enough to go around and those that were available were washed, recycled and issued only to prisoners who were being taken outside the prison for labour and similar duties. He said that the prison could not afford to issue uniforms to all prisoners. This means that at present high-security prisoners wear civvies which serve to aid them in escapes. Not wearing prison garb makes it easier for escapees to blend in among regular folk and avoid detection.

In other jurisdictions, prisoners, particularly men, and with the exception of those on remand, are issued with standard garb, including underwear and footwear. Apart from making them easily identifiable, prison uniforms also promote discipline and equality. Jumpsuits and trousers which have no pockets make concealing improvised weapons and contraband that much more difficult.

Britain, which had relaxed its prison uniform policy revised it four years ago and in a nod towards rehabilitation, allows prisoners to wear their own clothing if they demonstrate good behaviour.

Just as other uniforms allow wearers to identify with their institutions, studies have found, prison garb has the same effect. Issuing uniforms, therefore, might temper the boldness seen in local inmates. A way must be found to make this policy effective again as the prison authorities clearly need all of the help they can get.

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