Prison labour may conjure images of chain gangs in striped uniforms toiling under the sun, but textiles and clothing have been produced in prisons since at least the 1700s. Prison labour was originally intended as a punishment, as a means to cover the expenses incurred as a result of incarceration, or to benefit the community where the crimes were committed. But later it was used as a means of rehabilitation and to equip prisoners with skills useful to them after they were released, in the hope it would dissuade them from reoffending.
British prisoners used to sew mail sacks, Austrian prisoners sewed their own blankets and American prisoners have even stitched for Victoria's Secret. Most prison work programmes used to be run by the warden and jail authorities, but prison labour is now more likely to be leased to a private company. While there are definitely those who take advantage of the system to access a cheap labour pool, there are also brands that focus on developing creative expression and offering inmates an opportunity to participate in meaningful work.
It's well established that creative activities increase self-esteem and self-awareness, while they are also a means of coping with stress and trauma. With depression common among prisoners, providing them with an outlet for creative production has been recognised as an important means of boosting their self-worth, instilling self-discipline and fostering hope, while helping reintegrate into society.
Fine Cell Work is a British social enterprise that produces high-quality embroidery for home interiors that is entirely produced by prison labour. It is recognised by authorities and inmates alike as a way of improving confidence levels among prisoners, channelling aggression and reducing stress. The initiative operates in 30 prisons across the UK. Launched in 1991 by philanthropist Lady Anne Tree, Fine Cell Work was set up as a means of allowing prisoners to earn money and gain new skills.
Carcel is a Danish brand that produces a womenswear collection made entirely by prison labour. The brand wants to help create a better life for inmates and their families, while the prisoners are in jail and after their release. With production sites inside women's prisons in Peru and Thailand, Carcel ensures fair wages and offers inmates an opportunity to gain financial independence through a voluntary employment initiative, with the money they earn paid directly to the inmates.
The premium womenswear and unisex collections are made from silk, alpaca and other luxurious but regional materials, with prices ranging from $170 (Dh620) for a silk tank top to $700 for a jacket. The collection has a sophisticated, minimal style, representative of the Nordic aesthetic, and is shipped globally.
Pieta is another brand with an entire production model based on prison-made clothing. Founded in 2012, the brand employs male and female inmates in Peru. They produce an urban collection comprising poetic, inspirational and humorous logo T-shirts, baseball caps, sweats and accessories. Prices range from $20 for men's underwear to $100 for a sweatshirt. Not only are the inmates responsible for making the clothing, but they also contribute to the designs and pose as models for the advertising campaigns.
Prisoners are paid a percentage of the retail price for each unit of clothing they produce, providing them with income they can send to their families. Upon release, former inmates can continue working with Pieta, helping to bridge the gap between prison employment and reintegration into society. The brand name is a tribute to Michelangelo's masterpiece and is intended to represent perseverance in the face of adversity. Every item in the collection is numbered and signed by the craftsman who made it.
Project Papillon is a Finnish brand that produces its collection in the country's national prison system, widely recognised as one of the most progressive incarceration programmes in the world. The brand uses creativity as the foundation for rehabilitation and as a tool to resolve conflict. The prisoners design and create the garments, with the label paying them a licensing fee, acknowledging their hard work and rewarding them for innovation. Founded in 2009, the lifestyle brand produces a menswear collection of tongue-in-cheek urban workwear featuring logo T-shirts, denim shirts, prison-striped pyjamas and even orange onesies.
There have long been questions about the ethics of using prison labour, especially by profit-driven businesses, sometimes prompting the occasional Twitter storm. But there is little doubt that some brands, including the ones listed here, are built on the intention of giving back and offering those in jail a chance to earn a decent and honest living.