When you picture prison, you probably imagine scenes of cold steel bars and grey walls, punctuated with the bright orange of jumpsuit-clad men and women. As their sentences bear on, they spend their days toiling away at the gym, playing cards, and maybe smoking the odd cigarette. Between the shapeless, glaring uniforms that they are made to wear and the fact that the majority of prisoners are men, it would seem that prison is the furthest thing away from fashion and that it may be one of the only places where fashion has no place and does not matter.
While the initial image of uniforms, steel, and endless grey may be somewhat accurate, the fact that prisoners are able to sit around all day fantasizing about their release is not. When it comes right down to it, it simply is not economically viable. In America, where the highest incarceration rate in the world exists, there are approximately 2.7 million people in jail. To put this in perspective, this is more than the number of people that live in Houston, Texas; America’s fourth largest city. It is also much higher than the number of people in jail in China, a nation that has a population of more than 1 billion people and that does not shy away from disciplinary action either. In the end, these 2.7 million inmates end up costing taxpayers around $63 billion each year.
But someone had an idea. Why not have prisoners work for a small company or a large corporation while in jail? The labour would be cheap and the money spent on keeping that person in jail will be cycled back into the economy via the products they are able to produce. This is how manufacturing in prison was born in the United States and the manufactured goods range from food products to technology, really anything that can be made in a factory, including fashion.
However, the United States is not the only country that does this and economics is not the only reason. In other countries, the manufacturing of products, clothing especially, is seen as part of social reform within the prison system. Many inmates do not have higher educational backgrounds or any employable skills; so by having them participate in the manufacturing of goods, they are gaining job experience that they can take with them when they are released.
Whether it is for economic gain or social betterment, here are 5 brands that sell clothing made in prison.
5. Prison Blues and Correction Connection
Prison Blues was created in 1989 in Oregon with the intention of manufacturing garments to assist in covering the costs of the inmates’ stays at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute and without damaging local private businesses. To set up their enterprise, they used a grant given to them by the government that consisted of money retrieved from drug trafficking. In order to participate as a factory employee, inmates must not only demonstrate good behaviour but also successfully complete an interviewing process. Once an employee, they must remain productive at all times inside and outside of work. One benefit of being an employee is that they get to keep approximately 20 percent of their earnings, with the other 80 percent being used to cover the cost of their stay and any of their other expenses, such as family support and paying taxes. These positions at Prison Blues are so coveted that there is even a 3-year waiting list. The Correction Connection helps Prison Blues to distribute their product in-store and online, and products range from t-shirts to jeans. Interestingly, they also manufacture uniforms for other prisons in the state of Oregon.
4. Stripes Clothing
Stripes Clothing was created by four individuals who are not incarcerated but who took a tour of a prison during the final year of their studies. They concluded that in prison, one can easily become detached from the real world, losing the sense that freedom exists and in turn their motivation. “By maintaining work rhythm in prison, the life of a prisoner does not entirely stand still” and they are given access to the normalcy of attending work every day, like everybody else. They also strengthen their social skills, along with the technical skills associated with producing a garment. Stripes Clothing was founded in the Netherlands and four prisons participate in clothing manufacturing there. A prison in France along with the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute of Prison Blues has also teamed up with Stripes Clothing.
When German jails first started wanting to sell their clothes, they were uneasy about stating where they were made. Surely they thought that judgment would be passed and that people may not want them due to negative connotations. However, one businessman named Stephan Bohle decided that it was nothing to be feared and boldly named the label Haeftling, German for “jailbird”. Since then, the brand has never looked back and they have sold garments to people from Germany to Australia to Japan. They have in fact been so successful that they expanded into leather briefcases, bed linens, and even a specialty line of schnapps.
As a department store, JCPenney sells a variety of items from appliances to baby clothes, all made by various companies representing different brands. They also have their own brand, called jcp. Between all of these, prison labour has come into play. Though they state on a government labour website that they do not knowingly outsource their manufacturing to foreign companies that use prison labour, it really says nothing about working with companies that employ inmates in their own country, which is interesting. Though perhaps they have ceased buying from companies that produce their garments in US prisons, many sources state that it is their lingerie that is made by inmates, which brings us to our next brand.
1. Victoria’s Secret
This one is probably the most bizarre and maybe even a little disturbing to some consumers on a variety of levels. Not only is it quite odd to picture your stereotypical balding, tattooed prisoner handling your soon-to-be unmentionables, it also may be a little disconcerting that this company, like JCPenney, is a large, successful retailer that doesn’t really need to be saving money by producing their products in prison. Unlike the first three projects mentioned, Victoria’s Secret manufacturing some of their goods in prison is not simply for the good of the inmates, but it also directly benefits Victoria’s Secret. This has led to some controversy about whether it is ethical to be employing inmates where it is beneficial to not just the inmate and the taxpayer, but also to this new third party, the corporation. Regardless, it still provides inmates with something constructive to do each day and with some skills to take with them when they are released, so it would seem that everybody wins. Now I wonder if they’ll accept employee transfers … Probably not.