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Reading the Goethe-Institut Fashion Scene article about Haeftling designers in Berlin, I thought it was an Onion style send up. “Prisoner chic” sounds like something straight out of satire, but I guess I was snoozing when this hit the news wires in 2003.

Haeftling (translated as ‘Prisoner’) employs inmates across Europe to manufacture clothing and housewares inspired (they say) by prison life, “The garments are highly functional and have a classic and timeless cut. Only high-grade, rugged fabrics are used in manufacturing.”

Well, whatever you say. I actually don’t mind how they market it, I am just pleased they support prison reform, the abolition of the death penalty, political prisoners rights and a philosophy of rehabilitative justice.

Haeftling Tray

Haeftling Tray

But let’s not kid ourselves. This project was borne of commercial interests. “It began in the JVA (Justizvollzugsanstalt/prison) Tegel and developed into an international undertaking. More and more prisons have joined and today production is even taking place elsewhere in Europe. One Bavarian prison supplies honey from its own two colonies of bees; a prison in Switzerland even has its own vineyard and exports its own red (Pinot Noir) and white wine (Müller Turgau).” (source)

Karola Schoewe, Haeftling’s PR & communications manager says, “On the whole, the prisons are all very helpful,” says  “There are some prisons that have very good production capacities for making homeware.”

Schoewe then marries the business speak to social responsibility speak, “Through its production, Haeftling is creating measures that help to support rehabilitation processes.”

Haeftling Espresso

Haeftling Espresso

Without seeing Haeftling’s account-books or sitting in on a board meeting, I have no way to tell if resources and profits are divvied up in a way that benefits prisoners more then in the state run prison industries. This was the situation in July 2003

With 40% of Tegel’s prisoners unemployed, the Haeftling project has come as a welcome boost to the jail. The prisoners get an allowance of €26 a month, but ones working on the clothing line can earn up to €12.50 a day. The cash from the sales is divided among the bankrupt city of Berlin, the prison and the inmates.

(Author’s Note: €12.50 is substantial pay compared to American prisons.)

Prison industries are a divisive issue. For some they are the perfect use of prisoners’ time and energies developing job skills, work community & self-esteem. To others prison industries are a modern slave labor exploiting societies’ self-created incarcerated class.

Both viewpoints have legitimacy, but the first makes a prior assumption that could be misleading – that work programs are the only means to provide skills, community or self-worth. Education does this too.

But educating someone instead of putting them to work is going to cost a prison authority rather than generate it wealth.

Male

Generally, I am unnerved by the disconnect between the reality of incarceration and its representation to consumers,

Shoppers at the Haeftling store can have Polaroid mug shots of themselves made, holding a plaque with their names spelled out in white block letters. The stereo system plays the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ prison film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And customers browse through racks of striped jackets and shirts.

Then again, Klaus-Dieter Blank, of Berlin’s Tegel Prison states the success of the label’s online store has meant that people are beginning to understand “what goes on behind the walls”. Haeftling features on the Tegel Prison website.

Is there too much space here for consumers to create their own version of prison life? What is included and/or played down in the minds of consumers? Are they being coerced and sold a disingenuous view along with that ‘rugged’ product?

Blanket

"Justiz 82" Scratchy Blanket. Haeftling Product

We can assess this a number of ways – rehabilitative worth, public awareness worth, benefits to state finances, tax-payer savings, external benefits of development in social entrepreneurship.

But essentially, we must ask, “Does this enterprise help reduce prison populations by reducing recidivism? It MUST be compared to other rehabilitative programs. The purpose of prisons the world over should be to create societies where prisons are no longer necessary.

How do you judge this type of enterprise?


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