Inside story: the fashion labels that hire prisoners

From the Mexican business making tattooed bags to a UK organisation selling embroidery to Stella McCartney, social enterprises are working with prisoners

Jailed nine years ago for stealing lorries, Sergio is adamant he wont join the long line of ex-offenders heading back into Mexicos notoriously violent, overcrowded prison system. Reoffending rates in the country stand at 44%.

Sergios chances might be better than most. After leaving jail three months ago, he joined Prison Art, a social enterprise operating in six prisons in the states of Guadalajara and Queretaro to make high-end textile goods.

Leaving prison, my only option apart from this was a minimum-wage job some place. With Prison Art, I can work from home and the pay allows me to look after my mother and daughter, Sergio says.

Prison Art sells bags, wallets, belts and other accessories in 11 shops around Mexico, as well as internationally online. The designs are inspired by tattooing, an art form that the social enterprises founder Jorge Cueto-Felgueroso became familiar with during the 11 months he spent in a Guadalajara prison awaiting trial for fraud.

Jorge

Jorge Cueto-Felgueroso founder of Prison Art. Photograph: Prison Art

The actuary-turned-businessman was found innocent, but the experience inspired him to help prisoners reintegrate into society. His solution was Prison Art, which he set up in late 2013 and which now provides paid work and training to over 200 prisoners. All the profits from sales are ploughed back into providing skills training and setting up new retail outlets.

The use of prison labour by companies is commonplace in Mexico, which has a prison population of just under 250,000, as it is around the world. Yet the work is typically low-skilled, repetitive and poorly paid. And its not without controversy. Whole Foods announced in April it would stop stocking products made by prison labour after customers accused the supermarket chain of participating in the exploitation of low paid prisoners.

Cueto-Felgueroso says Prison Art is about raising prisoners self-esteem and providing them with a tradeable skill, its not just about work or wages. The bags we make are just a sub-product of the whole process, he says. Whats important is the help we offer with rehabilitation and the reintegration into society afterwards.

Even so, inmates on Prison Arts programme can earn between $350-$1,000 (270-770) per month, according to Cueto-Felgueroso not bad given that the monthly salary of a prison guard is around $450 (350). In order to help maintain family relationships and meet domestic expenses, the social enterprise directs half of all prisoners pay to their immediate families.

Taller Nu is another social enterprise working in Mexicos prisons. Set up by 29 year-old fashion designer Pilar Obeso and her business partner Olga Olivares, the company produces high-end shoes that sell in designer stores in Miami and New York, as well as across Mexico. The company, which currently counts 25 female inmates on its work training programme, also offers courses in self-empowerment via a non-profit partner. Participants are paid on a per-product basis.

Taller Nu video.

In addition, Taller Nu has an arrangement with the correctional facility in Texcoco, 25km north-east of Mexico City, that sees prisoners jail times reduced by five days for every ten days they work. The prison authority is helping the organisation co-fund a permanent workshop within the jail.

Because of the emphasis on vocational training, life skills and long-term rehabilitation, Obeso says that her initiative is free of the shadow of exploitation that hangs over prison labour. She sees a benefit in actively promoting its work with prisoners. People are willing to pay a bit more once they know what and who is behind this beautiful product, says Obeso.

Olga

Olga Olivares and Pilar Obeso, founders of Taller Nu. Photograph: Taller Nu

Similar initiatives are being tried in the UK, where companies offering paid work to inmates is becoming more common, according to a recent government review (pdf). But the report finds most prisons lack the facilities to provide meaningful work opportunities that will equip them for working life after prison.

One social enterprise aiming to help change this is Fine Cell Work, which won a concession from the Home Office in 1997 to allow prisoners to work in their own cells. The organisation trains over 400 prisoners in embroidery skills annually in around 29 UK jails. Their work has been exhibited at the V&A and sold to designers such as Stella McCartney and hotelier Kit Kemp.

Fine Cell Work is part grant-funded and part financed through product sales, which net around 250,000 per year. The pay is peanuts by conventional standards, with participants collecting around 200-1,100 per year, according to founding director Katy Emck. But the emphasis, she says, is primarily on self-esteem and future career prospects. Wages are not real world wages, Emck concedes, but people dont do it if they dont enjoy it.

Social enterprises should be the norm in prisons, she says: Rather than just doing something functional, if the people involved have purpose and their skills are nurtured and they are encouraged, then we would have much, much lower recidivism.

Whole work opportunities for prisoners may play a positive role in their rehabilitation, says Peter Frankental of Amnesty International, he warns of exploitation. Under no circumstances should commercial interests take precedence over their rights. The abuse of prisoners in many countries makes it particularly important for governments to conform to internationally established ground rules when they allow businesses to use prison labour and to ensure that safeguards relating to working conditions and health and safety are in place.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/sep/21/fashion-labels-hire-prisoners-mexico-uk-inmates-social-enterprise

The post Inside story: the fashion labels that hire prisoners appeared first on Beauty Questions Information Answers.

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