These Inmates Got the Blues, Prison Blues Jeans, That Is
Behind the heavy metal doors and barbed-wire fences, a killer cuts the cloth, a robber stitches the seams and a car thief sews on the pockets.
The massive workroom at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution hums with the staccato rhythm of sewing machines as dozens of inmates turn piles of denim into a line of jeans called Prison Blues.
This austere, heavily guarded setting is a selling point in a privatized marketing campaign that portrays these relaxed-fit jeans and shirts as a sort of prison chic, with little bars on the buttons and the slogan: “Made on the inside to be worn on the outside.”
“They keep us real busy,” said Doug Thomas, who sews piecework on more than 600 pairs of jeans a day while he serves six years for robbery. “It relieves the stress.”
Prison Blues began in 1990 as the state’s way of trying to sell the jeans made by inmates, for inmates. They were eventually on the shelves in 30 states and overseas, racking up annual sales of $1.5 million before a federal dispute last year over prisoner pay brought widespread sales to a halt.
Since October, a private corporation, the Yoshida Group, has taken on the task of reviving the brand in a deal that gives the state a cut of the profits and gives inmates training for the workplace when they get out.
“It teaches good job skills and the habit of coming to work every day,” said Ernest Badilla, a murderer who quickly pointed out the futility of his own case.
“I’m doing life without parole,” he said with a shrug.
Oregon requires most inmates to work and encourages partnerships with the private sector. It also requires the businesses to be run in a businesslike way.
During the years the state ran Prison Blues, it found itself at odds with a federal law requiring inmates making goods for interstate commerce to be paid the prevailing industry wage, and allowing them to keep at least 20% of what they make.
A 1997 ballot measure brought Oregon into compliance.
The state, meanwhile, had purged its out-of-state customer file because the interstate trade ban had rendered it inactive.
“We don’t even know who the customers were. We’re starting over,” said Tawna Jones-Cliff, who heads marketing efforts for Array Corp., formed by Portland-based Yoshida to handle the Prison Blues line.
She attended the brand’s recent trade show and said sales representatives have been lining up in New York, Seattle, Canada and Switzerland.
Prison Blues are sold as work clothes at about 200 outlets, small and mostly in Oregon, and are favored by loggers, farmers and construction workers.
At Jowers, in a blue-collar neighborhood of Portland, Prison Blues sit among displays of work boots, heavy-duty suspenders and nationally distributed work jeans.
“People ask us, “Hey, are they really made in prison?’ ” said saleswoman Lindsey Knapp. She said their popularity lies in ruggedness and a slightly lower price, about $22 a pair.
“They’re made by men but the work is good, the seams are straight,” she said.
She said one reason the owners decided to stock them was that some of the proceeds go to victim-restitution programs.
Inmates in the clothing factory say they can earn about $50-$55 a day, but 80% goes for their upkeep, taxes, restitution, legal fees, child support and other costs. What little they have left is spent in the prison canteen or sent home to relatives.
Because of the decent pay--which compares to only about $1 an hour in the prison laundry--there is a long waiting list for the 50 jeans jobs. Inmates must have 90 days of continuous good behavior to be considered.
The factory makes jeans for use in Oregon’s prison system for three months before starting to make clothes with the Prison Blues label.
Nancy DeSouza of Oregon Prison Industries said the state, which still owns the brand, lacked the expertise to develop Prison Blues as far as they thought it could go. Since the law required that the enterprise be run in a businesslike manner, the state went to the private sector for help.
Yoshida has exclusive use of the Prison Blues trademark and pays the state a 6% royalty on gross sales. The company must increase sales by at least 10% a year to retain exclusive rights to the trademark.
The company’s slickly produced marketing handouts emphasize the birthplace of these blues. They blare the words “Straight From Prison” and are filled with old-time photos of work crews and the prison itself.
A line of Prison Blues T-shirts, which are also printed at the prison, have such slogans as “Wear Them Out,” “Sentenced to Life on Planet Earth,” and “Final Countdown,” which shows days being counted off.
While Yoshida isn’t shy about touting the prison theme, it is careful not to take things too far.
One seller was rejected because he planned to set up a mock electric chair and use it as the display for the company’s clothes.
“We don’t do anything that is not proactive,” Jones-Cliff said. “We do background checks to be sure a retailer won’t be disrespectful of the inmates or the brand.”
‘People ask us, “Hey, are they really made in prison?” They’re made by men but the work is good, the seams are straight.’
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