COLUMBIA, S.C. – Behind South Carolina's drab prison walls, the colors of clothing can mean a lot.
An inmate wearing something red would likely be linked to the Bloods street gang. Blue is the color for the Crips, a rival gang. Unless you're a guard, the state wouldn't put you in those colors.
Most inmates wear tan jumpsuits. Yellow ones are for prisoners in isolation; green for those sentenced to die; orange for the ones transferred from county jails.
Now, a federal judge has to decide on the most controversial of the jumpsuit colors: pink.
Chief U.S. District Judge David C. Norton is expected to soon consider whether South Carolina prison officials were out of line when they forced inmates who commit sex acts behind bars to wear the bright pink jumpsuits. The color could incite "attacks on a person's manhood" in an all-male environment, one inmate claims in a lawsuit.
"It can only be seen by a reasonable person as a way to exploit homosexuals and endanger those who may not be homosexuals by grouping them with homosexuals," argued Sherone Nealous, who is serving a 10-year sentence for assault and battery with intent to kill. "The color 'pink' in an all male environment no doubt causes derision and verbal and physical attacks on a person's manhood."
In June 2006, Nealous, 31, filed a federal lawsuit over the policy, claiming that the Corrections Department "is placing inmates' lives and physical well-being in danger." In early February, jurors deadlocked over whether the jumpsuit color constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates inmates' civil rights.
Prison officials say they've run out of options when it comes to the colors of jumpsuits that prisoners wear. They say the color-coded system is important because it helps officers easily identify both each other and inmates during a riot or other security problem.
In court documents dated in August, South Carolina prisons Director Jon Ozmint also said that, while pink was identified as one of only a few colors not already in use, he knew the color would be unpopular among inmates - hopefully stemming bad behavior in the future.
"I also believed, and still believe, that the color would be unpopular with the inmates and believed that the less desirable the color chosen, the more likely that the policy would act as a deterrent to the misconduct and help to rehabilitate the inmate," he said. "This lawsuit confirms my belief."
Ozmint said he had not heard of any assaults on an inmate wearing a pink jumpsuit among South Carolina's 24,000-strong prisoner population. A prisons spokesman said hundreds of inmates have had to wear pink jumpsuits since the program went on the books in 2005.
"If there were assaults on guys because they were in pink, I would know about it," Ozmint said. "I am very confident that there is no increased threat to inmates as a result of wearing pink."
Even the head of an organization that typically advocates on behalf of South Carolina inmates, trying to help them acclimate to life outside of prison, said she supports the policy, in part because it helps keep her employees safe.
"When I have a person who's standing up in front of a group of inmates ... trying to get them to understand what it's going to be like when they get out of prison, and somebody in that group decides to expose themselves to my employee, something has to be done," said Anne Walker, executive director of the Alston Wilkes Society.
She said inmates themselves are the ones who can determine whether or not they end up in pink.
"If they'd quit doing it, they wouldn't have to wear pink jumpsuits," she said.
South Carolina prison officials aren't the only ones who think pink when it comes to disciplining inmates. In Arizona, a controversial sheriff is known for using pink handcuffs and making inmates wear pink underwear. Officials in some states painted cell walls pink to calm inmates after scientific research in the 1990s suggested the color made them less aggressive.
Attorneys representing Nealous declined to comment, as did Corrections Department officials and attorneys for the agency.
State Sen. Mike Fair, who heads a legislative committee on prisons, said that Nealous' lawsuit is evidence the policy is doing what Ozmint intended. "If it ceases to be an embarrassment, then it ceases to be an effective punishment," he said.