Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Traditionally, whether it's stripes or jumpsuits, jailed inmates have worn government-issue uniforms. And for more than a decade, many of New York City's prisoners have also been required to sport canvas sneakers in the name of safety and contraband control -- sneakers that have come to be known by a memorable nickname.
“They call them the ‘Air Patakis’, that’s the joke in jail,” said former inmate John Donadio, explaining the sneakers' preferred name.
Even though George Pataki hasn't been the governor of New York for six years and it is New York City that issues the footwear, inmates have long-associated the shoes with the former governor, who was in office when the DOC started handing them out more regularly to inmates. The lightweight, lace-free footwear resembles an enclosed slipper and come in black or orange, depending on what's in stock.
Prisoners often make up sly nicknames for things, said Thomas McCarthy, who was a longtime agency employee and now runs a Web site about the history of the Department of Correction.
“There's a wonderful capacity of human beings who are incarcerated to poke fun at their incarcerators. One way to ironically refer to these inexpensive shoes is to deride them and call them 'Air Patakis,'" said McCarthy.
Whatever they're called, former inmates loathe them. John Donadio and Kwarme Parker from Brooklyn and Jason Sanchez of Manhattan each weighed in on the shoes;
“They uncomfortable, pretty much they make your feet sweaty, it will develop fungus, foot odor.”
"They don't have no support, no arch and they very very slippery."
“You get calluses, they're like a flat pair of shoes without laces -- they're like we used to call Dekks back in the days."
A common ritual for inmates getting released is to toss their 'Patakis' in the nearest garbage can. That's just what Michael James did when he was released from the Manhattan Detention Complex downtown.
"I threw them away immediately because I had sneakers they took from me, which was these and I immediately put these on," James said.
James proudly shows off his gently used blue Nikes, a type of footwear that's banned in the city's jails because blue is considered a gang color that could incite violence.
Decades ago, prisoners were only issued new shoes when theirs were falling apart.
But in 2008, City's Correction Commissioner Martin Horn issued a directive that all inmates be required to wear 'departmental footwear' to reduce fighting. He hoped the strict policy would cut down on inmates hiding weapons or smuggling contraband inside the heels of shoes. But over the past year the DOC gradually relaxed the rule as shoe supplies and sizes dwindled.
Now, the inmates who have to wear 'Air Patakis' are those with histories of mental illness, those who arrive with shoes considered a security risk and all adolescents.
The Department Of Correction's Sharman Stein said it has been tough over the years to keep enough shoes in the right sizes in stock, but that the department is working on it.
"You're talking about a very big system -- almost 100,000 inmates admitted every year and 100,000 discharged -- so it is one of the big things we have to manage and we're working very hard now on a bid on a new contract that will keep us steadily supplied with enough shoes. We're going to need about 20,000 pairs every four months."
And Stein said the DOC is in the process of making prison-issue footwear better.
The new design has Velcro closures and more support. The city just received a shipment of the new, sturdier sneakers. They cost just over about $4, an increase of about $1.30 per pair from the old shoes. But why pay more for disposable sneakers at a time the city's in a fiscal crisis?
"The old shoes were often falling apart too easily; they were not useful during recreation which is very important and people were complaining about the shoes not fitting, not holding up and so we decided we needed to do better."
The verdict is still out whether the new and improved 'Air Patakis' will be as reviled than the old model. Either way, at least one person remains amused by the footwear: the former governor.
“Early in my administration, I remember law and order in its heyday had prisoners referring to their prison shoes ‘Air Pataki's’ -- I got a kick out of it," said Governor Pataki.
Pataki said he takes the sneakers' nickname as a compliment -- and of all the honors he’s received, this one rates fairly high.
”Its kind of tongue and check obviously," Pataki laughed, "but it’s an unsolicited endorsement of the success of our criminal justice polices, so from that sense, I gotta feel pretty good about it."
With the notorious jail sneaker's makeover, the Department of Correction's Stein said the name ‘Air Pataki’ could also be on its way out.
“Maybe now that we have new shoes and a new governor, they'll call them 'Cuomos.'”