COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — Forcing inmates to wear a striped uniform while they participate in a work program isn’t “cruel and unusual punishment,” the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The two-page opinion comes after a case against the South Carolina Department of Corrections was dismissed in 2020.
Thomas Thompson, a 63-year-old man serving a life sentence for murder, has been in prison since Oct. 1975. While behind bars, he has worked in various roles, including working as a teacher aid, a groundskeeper, a mechanic traineer, an upholsterer, a plumber and a wardkeeper. He has been a machine operator since 2016, according to prison records.
Thompson represented himself in the suit, which claimed that making him wear a striped uniform while working violated his Eighth Amendment right protecting him from “cruel and unusual punishment.”
He said that a policy change in 2019 forced inmates to wear striped uniforms in order to keep their typical orange ones clean. Prisoners were only asked to wear the different outfit while they were working.
“These uniforms with broad horizontal stripes (also pocketless and essentially sleeveless) are a universal symbol of punishment,” Thompson argued in court documents. “There are no changing areas in PI so inmates must wear the chain-gang uniforms to work and where ever they go during their shift (which includes the cafeteria, medical, mailroom, property control, etc) where they intermingle with other inmates. This imposes an atypical hardship by stigmatizing them and exposing them to ridicule.”
He filed a grievance with the prison, which was “resolved,” before filing an appeal in an administrative law court “detailing these events and the history of these uniforms which argued that the forced wearing of these uniforms were humiliating, degrading and caused mental anguish,” according to court documents.
Thompson argued that the striped uniforms were initially meant for the entire prison population, but then officials later decided to have the prison factories manufacture the typical solid orange uniforms. The lawsuit argues that the decision to create the striped outfits was a waste of money.
When he reached out to a mental health official for help about the uniforms, Thompson was told that participating in a work program was optional, according to the documents. Thompson claimed that the prison made him wear the uniform in order to “make use” of the outfits and that the prison “essentially uses the financial benefits of this job to extort them into submitting to wear them.”
He references a state court decision that banned the South Carolina Department of Corrections from forcing inmates who had sexual misconduct charges to wear pink jumpsuits.
Thompson’s case was dismissed in February 2020 after a judge ruled that working in a prison work program “is a privilege and not a punishment.” The South Carolina Supreme Court’s Wednesday opinion upheld that decision.