Sneakers That Defined America’s Prisons

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Sneakers have always been tied to identity. Inside America’s jails, these identities were only perpetuated by what was happening outside. Loaded terminology and a fiery culture springing from the sole permeated prison walls. Administrative systems worked hard to strip all identifiers (e.g. colour, branding, identity), but that didn’t stop a rampant sneaker culture from emerging.

New Balance in Honolulu, PUMA at Rikers Island or Air Patakis in New York City, these are the sneakers that defined Americas prisons.

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Sunset Los Angeles, CA 1995 | Image: Joseph Rodriguez
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Nike OG Cortez Advertisement | Image: size?
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Nike OG Cortez Advertisement | Image: size?
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Kendrick Lamar Reebok Leather Classic | Image: Sneaker Bar Detroit

Sneakers have long been used as a badge of honour. Back in the 1990s, Los Angeles—based gang, the Bloods, adopted Reebok as their sneaker of choice, running their own acronym: ‘Respect Each and Every Blood, OK?’ Within the decade, schools across LA banned students from wearing British Knights after the Crips appropriated the sneaker, using the British Knights logo as a call to arms: ‘Kill Bloods’. Even Nike copped their own disturbing acronym: ‘N***** Insane Killing Everybody’. After the LA riots in 1992, things became so heated that parents started monitoring what sneakers their kids were wearing.

BornxRaised co-founder Spanto grew up in the furore. He describes how the Nike Cortez was tied to notorious Californian gang, M-13.

‘You couldn’t fucking wear those things. I remember I had a pair in fourth grade. In fifth grade I went to get a pair, and my mom was like, ‘I’m not getting those shoes … shit’s not gonna end up well if I buy you those shoes.’

‘Gangbanging got so drastic in the 90s, it could have been something so simple as, ‘yo, that boy has a pair of Cortez on, jump on him’.
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British Knights OG Advertisement | Image: Footlocker

The strong gang affiliations of sneakers like the Cortez in LA was one of the key reasons American prisons came to enforce such stringent control when it came to sneakers. Still, that didn’t stop inmates from finding ways to address their loyalties. Kenneth Foster was a former prisoner at a Texas penitentiary, where people would brand their own generic sneakers.

‘If you look close enough … you might find Jordan, Nike or FILA logos neatly painted on [inmates shoes]’.

Even if you weren’t much of a painter, there are ways to track down authentic sneaker brands in prison (depending on your location). In Honolulu, you can get a pair of New Balance sneakers from the commissary for $59.90. (Keep in mind, who knows how long you’ll be wearing them; sneakers are the most popular item to be stolen in prison, as they impose social hierarchy, individuality and status — everything that looks to be stripped away upon entry).

At Rikers Island, in New York City, PUMA is the only brand allowed to be worn by inmates. Nike, New Balance, adidas and Converse are forbidden by the Department of Corrections because of their hollow cavities and metal supports (used to smuggle drugs).

But why PUMA?

According to journalist Justine Sharrock, PUMA just doesn’t have the street credibility:

‘PUMA aren’t radically different from adidas or Converse. All three brands offer two types of sole construction: vulcanised, which is a solid rubber sole taped to the rest of the shoe, and cup soles, a single, moulded piece that can have waffling and interior holes … allowing only vulcanised shoes, would seem most logical, but PUMA come in both. Still, there’s a less tangible factor at play: status.’

‘PUMA simply aren't cool enough anymore to justify an ass kicking.’
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Texas | Dallas Morning News

In most US prisons, the state will issue shoes with a clear sole and velcro. Why? A sneaker’s laces can be used as a weapon, and the sole can be used to smuggle drugs.

During the late 1990s, Baltimore City Detention Center uncovered a drug smuggling ring using an inmate’s sneakers. A man was caught stealing shoes to give to his girlfriend, who would pack the sole with heroin. The sneakers would then be sold on to other inmates of the prison. As part of her testimony to the court, the offender described the process.

‘With Nike Airs, you can cut between the sole, [heroin was placed in a] piece of paper or aluminium foil before the sole was sealed with glue.’

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The 'Air Pataki' | Image: WNYC

The Governor of New York, George Pataki, was one of the people entrusted with cleaning up the shoe culture in prison. During his 11-year period in chargePataki oversaw the extensive rollout of lightweight, lace-free footwear closely resembling a slipper. The slippers, coming in both black and orange colourways, were known to inmates as the: ‘Air Pataki’.

The verdict? Ordinary. Former New York City inmates, John Donadio and Kwarme Parker, said the Air Patakis had ‘no support, no arch and [were] very slippery … you get calluses — they’re like what we used to call Dekks back in the day’. Air Patakis became part of a ritual once inmates were released: throw them in the nearest bin (each Air Pataki costs NYC state around $2.70 to manufacture).

The generic, mass-produced slippers were rebranded by inmates as part of the ongoing process of salvaging forms of identity in prison. Whether through a word-of-mouth sleight to their superiors (e.g. Air Pataki), carefully painting their favourite brands on state-issued sneakers, or tracking down a pair of legitimate New Balance (via the commissary or someone else’s cell), sneakers offered inmates a chance at forging identities often stripped away by the US prison system.

What’s the first thing to grab once you step out of prison?

The Nikes they swiped on entry.

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