The Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to the ethics of fashion brands made in prisons….

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Recently, a crop of new fashion brands made in prisons has arisen. They boast that because they’re using eco-fabrics and are giving prisoners something to do with their time, they’re ‘sustainable’. But actually, anyone who watches Orange is the New Black will know that the series, based on a real life experience in jail, and it depicted inmates sewing lingerie – for a whopping $1 a day.

Putting prisoners to work is hardly new: history shows that from as far back as we started keeping prison records, there have been work programs in place for prisoners. And they continue to this day.

In the United States, the first and most established correctional program was Unicor. This was implemented by the Federal Prison Industries not as a for-profit business, but as a form of inmate release preparation. It was designed to help offenders acquire the necessary skills to successfully make the transition from prisoner to law-abiding, contributing member of society.

But things have changed, and it seems American prisons are now merely sweatshops for cheap labour.

Blurred Lines Between Prisons And Sweatshops

By now, most of us understand that sweatshops are prisons, of a sort. But did you know prisons are also sweatshops of a type?

According to Business of Fashion writer Kate Abnett: “Across England and Wales there are 105 public sector prisons, containing 63 textiles workshops,” whilst today in the USA, “the Federal Prison Industries operates  78 factories inside correctional facilities, which make products for the prisoners’ own use, such as uniforms or bedding” as well as federal goods such as military uniforms.

Sure, it could be argued that there it’s a great idea that prisoners create their own uniforms and bedding. And there are various benefits of working for those imprisoned. They can learn valuable skills that can be used later; it keeps them busy and even pays them a nominal fee, sometimes. They gain a sense of dignity and self-worth, and benefit from teamwork. But this totally depends on the context.

Given the fact that prisoners only earn an average of between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour in the USA, paired with the fact that more people are imprisoned now than ever before in history in that country, something about the ethics of fashion brands made in prisons smells fishy here.

America = Prison Nation

The main reason is that work schemes are no longer intended to reform prisoners and boost their skills; instead they’re mainly aimed at saving money for corporations. Indeed, there’s a long list of well known companies that exploit prisoners for their labour. These include: Victoria’s Secret,  IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, J. C. Penney and many more.

Rather nefariously, having more people in prison certainly serves these companies – which in turn have a lot of lobbying power over governments. Considering the USA has more of its population in prisons by far than any other country in the entire world (more than Russia! Way more than China! Far more than Iran!), and considering a lot of people are getting rich from the prison-industrial complex, it is certainly worth wondering whether the government has any incentive for keeping people out of prison.

Profitable Prisons

This is a highly serious issue. Unlike the situation in most countries in the world (where taxpayers fund prisons), most American prisons are privately owned, for profit industries – which means it’s pretty obvious that the more people who are locked up, the more potential profits they can be made.

The two biggest prison corporations in the country made  $3.3 billion  in 2012, profiting from government payments and prison laborers, who were forced to work for pennies on behalf of companies like Boeing and McDonald’s.

Additionally, it’s recently been revealed that President Trump received large sums for his campaign from the powerful private prisons lobby, indicating that private prisons are corrupting the political process by giving incentives for politicians to throw more people in jail.

Prisons are thrilled to get manufacturing contracts, as they actually make a cut from the corporations who send work to them. You may think that at least the burden of funding prisons is lifted from the taxpayer when those institutions are privatised. But guess what? They also gain funds from taxes!

When a private company is actually making money from crime, well…that’s just criminal. Or it least it should be. And The ethics of fashion brands made in prisons are certainly called into question.

Are These Really Criminals?

But who are the actual prisoners, today? In America at least, the vast majority are in for petty, non-violent and often drug related crimes. There are around 2.3 million people in jails there overall, around 1 in 10 of whom are black males.

And those prisoners are staying in for longer times, for stupider reasons. According to Global Research and La Prensa, the main reasons America’s prison population is so high include:

  • Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs.
  • The passage in 13 states of the “three strikes” laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who for stealing a car and two bicycles received three 25-year sentences.
  • The passage of laws that require minimum sentencing, without regard for circumstances.
  • A prison culture that’s so miserable, it almost encourages violence – which then extends the sentences of those already incarcerated.
  • Parole conditions that are so strict, they’re easily violated, which means offenders often return to prison.
  • A lack of programs aimed at rehabilitating prisoners, meaning they often return to prison.
  • Legislation passed by former  President Bill Clinton in 1996 that loaded up detention centers and jails with immigrants

And perhaps most importantly: a large expansion profits from the work of prisoners, which gives companies and governments the motivation to incarcerate more people for longer periods of time.

Making Profits From Loneliness

It’s not only the prisoners who suffer, it’s their families too.

According to The Nation’s  Liliana Segura, for example, a tech company called Global Tel*Link charges more than $1 per minute for families and friends to speak with their loved ones in prison. There is no free market, no competition to drive the price down.  Global Tel* Link makes more than $500 million per year from exploiting these vulnerable people.

If family or friends are unable to afford Global Tel*Link’s prices, prisoners may run a higher risk of social isolation. It’s a vicious circle, as studies show that social connections are  key  to a prisoner’s rehabilitation process once he or she is released.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn points out that a whopping 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. Many of them suffer immeasurably when such unaffordable phone rates rob them of the little parental contact they may have. For that reason, they are often happy to take on a job that pays $1 a day. That way, each week, they can ‘earn’ a seven minute call with their family. How sad is that?

To Buy or Not To Buy

So, let’s get back to the original issue: the ethics of fashion brands made in prisons. Is it ok to buy clothing made by jailbirds?

The answer is basically: it depends.

If the product is made in a private prison, that’s a hard NO. Allowing for and supporting private prisons interferes with the administration of justice. It incentivises governments and corporations to create more laws to make more criminals. It drives inmate populations skyward by corrupting the political and judicial process. Moreover, in my opinion, profiting from putting more people behind bars turns a country into what is essentially a police state, where incentives to turn productive citizens into prisoners outweigh incentives to turn prisoners back into productive citizens. Currently, only the USA, UK and Australia operate private prisons. Which says a lot.

On the other hand, there are plenty of state or national prisons that genuinely want to reform their inmates and give them much-needed skills for life on the outside. Their work programs are designed to increase skills, knowledge, ability to work in teams. Most essentially, these programs pay prisoners fairly for their work.

Some examples of excellent fashion brands made in prisons are below.

But on the whole, when it comes to the ethics of fashion brands made in prisons, you should keep this in mind: any company that exploits those behind bars,should be effectively barred by anyone with a conscience.

Fashion Brands Made In Prisons We TRUST

These are five examples of clothing made in prison ethically, from different countries with different approaches.

1. Carcel 

Carcel is one of the best known fashion brands made in prisons, thanks to its presence on sites like Net A Porter and Farfetch. They use sustainable materials, such as wool and alpaca, and acquire new skills at a good wage. Adding a personal touch, all of their garments carry a tag with the name of the woman who created it.

Carcel’s CEO & Founder Veronica D’Souza and Creative Director & Partner Louise van Hauen were inspired to create the label after they witnessed women in Peruvian prisons sewing and knitting – but with no market access.

Carcel was born out of a desire to turn this wasted time into improved skills and decently paid jobs. In Peru, inmates have to pay for their ‘stay’, so Carcel helps prisoners to do so. They also help them to send money to their children for school, and to save up to break the cycle of poverty that forced many of them into prisons in the first place.

The fashion label works closely with the National Prison System of Peru and a local production manager inside the women’s prison in Cuzco to create Danish designed collections mixed with Peruvian colours and fabrics. Peru is home to two of the most luxurious fabrics on earth: vicuña and alpaca – and these are used in Carcel’s designs.

They’ve also recently launched a project for inmates in Thailand, too.

carcel fashion denmarkEthics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

2. Project Pieta

This is one of the most successful fashion brands made in prisons for menswear. It’s a fashion label born in the tough prisons of Lima, Peru, and it defines itself as “an impertinent and irreverent project, independent and spontaneous.”

When founder Thomas Jacob visited a Peruvian jail in 2012, he was inspired to make a difference in the lives of the incarcerated people he met. The name he gave to his Project “Pietà ” is a tribute to Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting the scene of accepting Divine will. It indicates that in spite of hardships, one should never give up.

Interestingly, prisoners not only knit and sew the clothing, but also design it, too, keeping them not only busy, but creatively inspired. Every piece is unique, numbered, made in limited edition, and signed by the craftsman who made it. The garments use natural, ecological and recycled materials, including Pima cotton and recycled PET bottles.

The Latin American garments feature simple and minimalist cuts, and slogans and sayings that are poetically inspired by life’s vicissitudes.

Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In PrisonsEthics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

3. Haeftling 

Businessman Stephan Bohle could probably be the first to have ever conceived an ethical prison-made brand, since “Haeftling” (that means “jailbird” in German) was founded in 2003.

The company deeply believes in the good of mankind and giving second chances. In fact, opening their website, you will be greeted with the words “Be good, do good.” This is a message that Haeftling abides by, since a percentage of the proceeds goes back to the prisons in the form of funding training programs. The company also supports organizations that campaign internationally to improve prison conditions and protect the rights of political prisoners.

Their clothing collection ranges from jeans and jackets, to shoes, skirts, and even underwear. We all know how Germans love their schnapps, and the drink is celebrated in the Haeftling Schnapps Set. It makes the perfect gift, and consists of three homemade premium spirits.

Interestingly, the company is also forging German inmates into skillful farmers! They learn how to grow and harvest fruits and herbs, and ultimately distill them into…you guessed, it: schnapps!

Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

4. Banco Lotto n.10 

In the enchanting city of Venice, just a few minutes away from Saint Mark’s Square, there is a boutique that sells one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories. They’re all designed and handmade locally by inmates at the women’s prison on nearby Giudecca Island.

Banco Lotto n.10 gets its name from where you find it: namely in a former lottery ticket sales counter. The brand  represents how the incarcerated Venetians pay off their gambling debts. This is part of a reintegration program that’s run by volunteers from the non-profit organisation Il Cerchio.

The inmates learn to become high-skilled dressmakers, and make women’s overcoats, blazers, jackets, dresses, and even eco-friendly handbags from recycled materials. These textiles include burlap coffee sacks, upcycled parachutes and the sailcloth of discarded sails. This is one of the fashion brands made in prisons whose creations are so exquisite, La Fenice theatre often commissions their costumes for its stage performances from the prison.

Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

5. Project Papillon 

This is perhaps one of the most ethical of the fashion brands made in prisons. Not only does it provide Finnish prisoners with creative work, where they design and create garments, but the label goes one step further, too. Project Papillon actually pays prisoners a licensing fee for their creations, acknowledging the hard work that goes into the clothing designs.

Paying a licence fee reinforces the self-esteem of inmates, and continually rewards them for innovation and uniqueness.

The label’s unisex tees, tops, shirts and accessories are all made from upcycled fabrics and/or certified organic cotton.

project papillon fashion project papillon fashion

What do you think of the ethics of fashion brands made in prisons? We’d love to hear from you in the comments, below!

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons”

  1. Why do you trust Carcel? As far as I’ve seen everyone is taking them at their word that they’re ethical without question, and I’m not seeing any effort on their part to ensure the workers they use aren’t exploited.

    1. Hi Emmy! Good question. I live in Peru, and Carcel has a great reputation here. The women they employ in the prisons would normally being doing time without making a penny. This is problematic for moms, especially, who have kids on the outside and no means to pay for their food or clothing. Carcel pays these women for their work, and though it may not be much, here in Peru a little goes a long way. The women, who would normally be depressed and bored, are given a purpose and a wage – a much better situation than if they were just sat in their cells all day with nothing to do and no income. When they are released, they can continue working for the brand, too, which means they have a job right off the bat. Hope that helps!

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