When it comes to ethical labor in the fashion industry, the conversation usually begins and ends with sweatshop labor practices. But how does fashion produced by prisoners fit into the equation? Inmates toiling over sewing machines in Orange Is the New Black’s most recent season isn’t just a scripted plot line, according to Business of Fashion. It’s actually a case of life imitating art: In recent years, a handful of clothing labels have cropped up, touting that their collections are manufactured inside prison walls. Clothing production in correctional facilities has a much lengthier history — programs in the U.K. and U.S. have been operating since the 1930s. Stateside, these include government-owned Unicor (its formal name is Federal Prison Industries), which runs 78 factories inside prisons. These factories produce items for prisoners’ usage, such as inmate uniforms, as well as manufacture garb that’s contracted out, such as military uniforms; sales from those contracts amount to less than 20% of Unicor’s revenues. In the U.K., there are 63 “textiles workshops” that operate in public-sector prisons throughout England and Wales. The more contemporary businesses that have emerged are trying for a certain cool cachet and a much wider audience (especially compared to Unicor’s largely internal usage of the goods it produces). And these brands certainly aren’t downplaying that inmates are the labor force behind the the goods.
Three years ago, Thomas Jacob launched a streetwear line, Project Pietà, manufactured in a trio of jails in Lima, Peru. “I had the opportunity to visit a jail here in Lima, with a French friend who was teaching French classes in the jail, and I met a lot of wonderful people…[that were] very far from the image you may have of prison inmates,” Jacob told Refinery29. He spent a year developing samples and prototypes before production actually kicked off — “we had to work a lot to reach a high level of quality, and I didn’t want to make a common brand making average-quality product,” Jacob says. “I wanted to show the world that with all our ardor, efforts, and capacity, we could make high-quality work, like any other high-fashion studio.” Utilizing production machinery already on the jail’s premises, Project Pietà came to life, producing items made from organic pima cotton, ecological Andean highland wool, leather, and baby alpaca. “These people came from underprivileged upbringings, and were now idling in prison with nothing to make of their days,” Jacob says; the inmates partake in workshops on cutting, embroidering, sewing, leatherwork, serigraphy, and knitting to hone their skills. The vast majority of Project Pietà's customer base is beyond Peru (90%, to be exact). As for the biggest misconceptions Jacob has to contend with, given the brand's unusual labor force: "People think we are exploiting the inmates, but that's not true at all. Pietà has been created by the inmates," Jacob says. "Inmates earn a nice salary, and feel very engaged and responsible to do the work. They feel free!"
Since 1989, Prison Blues’ array of jeans and T-shirts have been produced out of a factory at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute in Pendleton, OR. “The environment [the garment factory] is bright and energetic, designed to maximize productivity, and most of the workers appreciate the time they can spend at work,” according to Prison Blues’ website. Launched in 2012, Netherlands-based Stripes Clothing’s slogan is “made in prison, inspired by freedom.” This year, the brand launched a Kickstarter to expand its production to Belgium, France, and the U.S. We reached out to Prison Blues and Stripes Clothing for comment, and will update when we hear back. Another brand born out of inmate labor was Haeftling, which began in Germany’s largest prison, Tegel Penitentiary in Berlin; the line utilized prison industry labor, and lasted from 2003 to 2013. The brand couldn’t keep up with demand or offer a wide array of pieces, since the prisoners employed to work on the line had limited technical experience. “It’s a very difficult story to tell,” Haeftling’s founder, Stephan Bohle, told Business of Fashion of the challenges involved with employing this unique workforce. Granted, these inmate-staffed fashion brands vary from one another greatly. You could argue that these programs create vocational opportunities (during and post-prison sentence) for inmates and provide a sense of purpose and motivation — or that donning clothes made by the incarcerated simply doesn’t feel ethical. Let us know how you feel about inmate-crafted clothing in the comments below.