Posted By: DreamingCode Admin

By Jacob Gallagher

The workwear brand Prison Blues makes rigid, affordable jeans and jackets beloved by American carpenters and Japanese trendsetters. And inmates in Oregon craft every item.

Imaichi Hayami is one of many young Japanese denim aficionados that wears Prison Blues. jeans.

Prison Blues is an American workwear brand selling starchy blue jeans and rigid trucker jackets for around $50. It's a niche label—If Levi's is the giant of the jean world, Prison Blues is more like an ant scurrying underfoot. But the brand's affordable clothes have lately caught the attention of young, fashion-conscious folks in Japan. A flip through Prison Blues' tagged photos on Instagram reveals a plethora of Japanese fans wearing its midnight-blue jeans and chunky denim jackets with leopard-print coats, technicolor Coogi sweaters and vintage neckties.

"The Japanese market is creating some new fashion trend with Prison Blues," said Jered McMichael, one of the brand's Oregon-based vendors, whose family has sold the brand for nearly 20 years. In Japan, Prison Blues is "not famous, but some people like it," said Imaichi Hayami , 25, who works at a clothing store in Tokyo and owns double-kneed jeans from the label, praising their "tough fabric, rivets and button design."

The brand's rising popularity is due in part to a certain kind of Japanese consumer's love of all things Made in America. Mr. Hayami, for example, said he is interested in American-made clothes and also wears U.S. manufactured Red Wing shoes and Camber sweatshirts. But Prison Blues' products hail from a place in America where "fashion trends" are not prevalent topics of conversation.

Prison Blues' goods, as the name suggests, are produced at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a medium-security state prison with roughly 1,600 inmates in Pendleton, Ore. Yes, one of the last remaining American jean manufacturers operates behind a prison wall in the Pacific Northwest. As the slogan says: Made on the INSIDE to be worn on the OUTSIDE.

The Prison Blues factory in Oregon employs 76 incarcerated adults.

Prison labor has existed in America for roughly as long as prisons have, but the practice has waned with time. Paul Wright, the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center , who studies prison labor extensively, speculated that today just 5,000 or so inmates nationwide produce goods for interstate commerce.

The modern era of prison labor in Oregon began around 2000, when the state established Oregon Corrections Enterprises to operate manufacturing programs inside its 14 prisons. Months prior, Oregon passed a ballot measure preventing prisons from taking business from private-sector companies, and clothing was a prime non-competitive market that OCE could wade into.

By the turn of the new millennium, most American clothing companies, searching for ever-cheaper labor, had moved production overseas. By starting an American-based denim, chore coat and T-shirt business in the late '90s, Prison Blues went squarely against industry trends. (Other prisons in Oregon produce wood furniture, office seating and upholstery.)

Today, 76 incarcerated adults work in the garment factory at Pendleton five days a week, for around seven and a half hours a day. Working in the factory, according to Benjamin Breazille, an inmate who screen prints clothing at Prison Blues, is "probably one of the best jobs you can get," throughout all of Oregon's penal system. (For this story, OCE granted me video interviews with two incarcerated people working at Prison Blues. Our interviews were monitored by an employee of OCE and I was prohibited from asking questions about the inmate's background or crime.)

Prison Blues has the highest output of OCE companies and its pay outpaces other jobs. Mr. Breazille said that while other prison careers max out at about $70 per month in take-home pay, he pockets roughly $330.

That take-home pay is considerably lower than a comparable job on the outside. As Jennifer Starbuck, OCE's communications and program manager explained, on paper, the incarcerated workers make a prevailing wage, but the state of Oregon takes 80% in taxes, child support, victim restitution and funds for the cost of incarcerating an inmate.

Inmates receive the remaining money. In his two and a half years working at Prison Blues, Mr. Breazille said he paid off roughly $13,000 in back child support and he expects to parole with about $2,000 in savings.

Critics of prison labor, like Human Rights Defense Center's Mr. Wright, consider the low take-home pay "one of the inherent unfairnesses" of prison work programs. He likened the wages to slave labor and believes such programs should be abolished.

The incarcerated workers I spoke to viewed the program as one of their few opportunities at hand. "Is it fair that we don't make, you know, as much as we would, if we were doing this job on the streets?" asked Daniel Slight, an inmate who works in Prison Blues' fulfillment department, "We're not there. We're in prison. This is our opportunity."

Prison Blues products range from tough jeans to half-zip shirts.

Prison Blues aims to benefit inmates in ways beyond the paycheck. Scott Bartholomew, the general manager of the factory (he is employed by the state) noted some inmates find manufacturing jobs once they're released. "They leave with an awful lot more than what they came in with," he said. Both inmates interviewed planned to leverage their skills learned at the factory to find work on the outside.

Like other apparel companies, in recent years Prison Blues has faced delivery delays, increased trucking rates and supply-chain shortfalls on items like zippers and rivets. "You're always waiting for that next shoe to drop," said Mr. Bartholomew.

The prison also had to contend with Covid-related lockdowns that slowed the factory's output. "We saw extensive production delays for Prison Blues and had to notify our dealers," said Ms. Starbuck. For a time the factory switched over to producing masks.

Nonetheless, in 2021 Prison Blues reported $2 million in revenue.

Mr. McMichael's company, Correction Connection, did over $600,000 in sales of Prison Blues products last year. The Pendleton-based vendor (who is not employed by the state and runs the business independently) often operates as a pitchman for the brand, corresponding with fashion influencers seeking out the brand's products and even sending out freebies to promote Prison Blues. Mr. McMichael runs the lovably low-fi website that pops up first when you Google the brand's name and markets the goods in blunt, energetic language: $38.25 straight-legged rigid jeans are billed for "people who work harder than they play!!!" while a $54.75 four-pocket yard coat is "Great for all kinds of chores!"

Mr. McMichael has sold Prison Blues products to British rockabilly enthusiasts who like the dense, retro vibe of the jeans—they cuff them wide like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." Japan is a sizable market, where word of mouth has inflated the brand's clout. Mr. Hayami of Tokyo said Prison Blues is known among those who "deeply like jeans," adding that the wide fit of the label's pants "is popular nowadays [and] is easily accepted by young people." He is aware of the company's prison backstory, though he said, "I don't wear it after thinking deeply. [I'm] wearing it because it's good." Mr. McMichael knew of a Japanese shop that leaves the original Prison Blues tag in the clothes and embellishes them, "to create their own spin."

Many Japanese consumers, like Imaichi Hayami, are drawn to Prison Blues because it is made in America.

For inmates, the label's outside reputation is tough to grasp. "We don't see message boards," extolling the products, said Mr. Slight, though he is able to discern from shipping labels that the brand's reach is broad.

In America, the brand is largely seen as a workwear brand competing with Carhartt, favored by loggers and carpenters. Malcolm Browne , 32, a carpenter in Boothbay, Maine, found the brand a few years ago while looking for American-made jeans. "I was just so impressed with the quality and the price," he said. Mr. Browne didn't have strong feelings about the brand's prison backstory, but praised the incarcerated craftsmen: "They do such a great job," he said, "I mean, [they're] really skilled workers."

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