Jokes about Felicity Huffman's prison uniform ignore the prison industrial complex
On Saturday, TMZ published photos of Felicity Huffman in prison, serving her 13-day sentence for her part in an extensive college admissions scam that involved wealthy parents buying their children’s way into elite universities. The pictures show Huffman in a short-sleeved forest green jumpsuit and black Under Armour sneakers. Before long, the photos became widely shared — Huffman’s case has been somewhat of a sensation. A high profile celebrity caught and punished for paying her kid’s way into opportunities they didn’t have to earn on their own.
"In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot," Huffman said in a letter to the court at her sentencing, according to CNN. "I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair.”
In that sense, it tracks that Huffman will be a source for public ire whenever the opportunity presents itself. And that’s fine, maybe even good. Her crime speaks to a sense of entitlement that deserves to be ridiculed. The best jokes, after all, are the ones that punch up. But keeping that in mind, the jokes about Huffman in her prison jumpsuit weren’t funny. Not because of Huffman herself is undeserving of the jokes, but because jail is not funny.
The jokes about the jail uniform mostly were comparing Huffman’s mandatory clothing to recent fashion trends: Virgil Abloh in a forest green button-down and the shapeless jumpsuits that have grown popular all over New York’s Soho.
And yes there may be a little bit of joy in seeing someone who abused their wealth face a consequence — something that feels increasingly rare nowadays. But the prison outfit represents more than Huffman’s two-week stint in jail or a slight similarity to Glossier sales representatives. It represents the low-security Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, where she’s serving out her sentence. And that institution, like the rest of America’s many jails and prisons, has had some horrific allegations made about the conditions inside.
According to a lawsuit settled in 2006, Stewart v. Sawyer, four women who were in FCI Dublin between 2000 and 2001 accused prison guard Johnsie Donaldson of sexual assault. The Bureau of Prisons ultimately settled the case for $330,000. Another lawsuit from 1995 included allegations from formerly incarcerated women that they were “sexually assaulted, physically and verbally sexually abused and harassed, subjected to repeated invasions of privacy and subjected to threats, retaliation, and harassment when they complained about this wrongful treatment.”
The jumpsuit Huffman is wearing more represents that reality, the life of prison for everyone who isn’t a former star of The Desperate Housewives, more than it does anything else. The jumpsuit represents the roughly 1,200 people detained at FCI Dublin as well as the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States — a number that is only expected to grow.
Pointing this out isn’t meant to generate outrage for the sake of outrage; this isn’t morality policing — it feels good to see someone with wealth and power is held to account. But, it’s also important to remember what we’re laughing at.