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Brands Behind Bars: The Ethics of Fashion Brands Made In Prisons

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Recently, a crop of new fashion brands made in prisons has arisen, boasting that because they’re using eco-fabrics and are giving prisoners something to do with their time, they’re ‘sustainable’. In fact, anyone who watches Orange is the New Black will know that the series, based on a real life experience in jail, depicted inmates sewing lingerie for a whopping $1 a day. Well, these issues certainly raise a lot of questions, to say the least – namely: is it ethical to buy brands made by prisoners?

Putting prisoners to work is hardly new: history shows  that from as far back as the late 1700s, up to the Great Depression, throughout World War II and continuing to the present day, there have been work programs in place for prisoners.

In the United States, the first and most established correctional program was Unicor, which was implemented by the Federal Prison Industries not as a for-profit business, but as a form of inmate release preparation that helped 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. 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 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 sending work to prisoners smells fishy here.

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: 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’s, 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.

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 prisons. 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.

Are These Really Criminals?

But who are the actual prisoners? 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 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.

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.

To Buy or Not To Buy

So, let’s get back to the original question: is it ethical to buy brands made by prisoners?

The answer is basically: no – if the product is made in a private prison. Allowing for and supporting private prisons interferes with the administration of justice. They’re driving inmate populations skyward by corrupting the political process. Moreover, in my opinion, profiting from putting more people behind bars turns a country into 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.

In all other countries, it’s possible that work schemes for prisoners are exactly that – they are for prisoners. They’re designed to increase skills, knowledge, ability to work in teams and of course, pay them fairly for their work. Some examples of excellent schemes that have really boosted prisoners’ lives are below.

But on the whole, any company that exploits those behind bars, should be effectively barred by anyone with a conscience.

Brands We Trust

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

1. Carcel in Denmark

Carcel is a new fashion label manufactured by women in prison who use sustainable materials and acquire new skills at a good wage. 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, so that imprisoned women could support themselves, send money to their children to school, and save up to break the cycle of poverty that forced many of them into prisons in the first place.

Ironically, some of the countries with the high-rates of poverty related crime are also home to some of the world’s most exclusive materials – for example, Peru is home to two of the most luxurious fabrics on earth: vicuña and alpaca – yet many young women from poor households end up in jail for drug trafficking. Carcel works 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.

fashion brands made in prisons

2. Project Pietà in Peru

This fashion label born in the prisons of Lima, 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 in spite of the hardships, one should never give up. 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, using natural, ecological and recycled materials. The Latin American garments are composed of simple and minimalist cuts, poetically inspired by life’s vicissitudes.


3. Haeftling in Germany

Businessman Stephan Bohle could probably be the first to have ever conceived a jail ware brand, since “Haeftling” (that means “jailbird” in German) was founded in 2003. The brand 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 training programs for the prisons. The company also supports organizations that campaign internationally to improve prison conditions and protect the rights of political prisoners.

The clothing collection ranges from jeans and jackets, to shoes, skirts, and even underwear. Furthermore, the beloved “schnapps” drink is embraced in the Haeftling Schnapps-Set, which consists of three homemade premium spirits. Hence, the company is also forging German inmates into skillful farmers, growing and harvesting the fruits and herbs and ultimately distilling them for the schnapps.

4. Banco Lotto n.10 in Italy

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 designed and hand-sewn locally by inmates at the women’s prison on nearby Giudecca Island. Banco Lotto n.10 is housed in a former lottery ticket sales counter (as the name gives away), and represents how the incarcerated Venetians pay off their gambling debts. This is part of a reintegration program run by volunteers from the non-profit organisation Il Cerchio.

The inmates are trained to become high-skilled dressmakers, making women’s overcoats, blazers, jackets, dresses, and even eco-friendly handbags from recycled materials, such as burlap coffee sacks and the sailcloth of discarded sails. Their creations are so exquisite that La Fenice theatre often commissions their costumes for its stage performances from the prison.

5. Project Papillon in Finland

This brand is perhaps one of the most ethical in the sense that not only does it provide Finnish prisoners with creative work, where they design and create garments, but the label also pays them a licensing fee for their creations, acknowledging the hard work that goes into the clothing design, and continually rewarding prisoners for innovation and uniqueness.

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