Finding a pair of high-quality workwear denim under $50 that is made in the U.S. is almost an impossible task, but Prison Blues has a unique solution. The company employs inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution to manufacture men’s workwear apparel and denim.
Prison Blues is a part of Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), a self-sustaining organization that provides work and training to Oregon’s inmates. The program works out of a 47,000-square-foot factory in the Pendleton, Ore. prison and inmates earn private sector prevailing wages.
The original aim for Prison Blues, which launched in 1990, was to create uniforms for adults in custody and staff at the prison. The program has since expanded to include workwear sold to the general public. A pair of Prison Blues jeans ranges from $30 to $45, depending on the style.
According to Barbara Cannard, communications and program manager at OCE, Prison Blues’ customers are not looking for a fashion jean; they’re looking for a work jean.
Prison Blues jeans are available in six styles and two colors—blue and black. Customers can choose from a traditional work jean or a jean with a double knee reinforcement. All of the jeans are made with 100 percent cotton 14.5 oz. denim sourced in the U.S.
Producing a pair of jeans takes 20 to 22 inmates. The process begins with a digital pattern that is then cut and pieced together. Inmates also gain experience in quality control and inspection. Jeans are checked by staff at various points of the process to ensure quality.
Creating a well-made product is not only essential for workwear, it reflects on the OCE program, according to Cannard. “It’s important to us to help these adults successfully develop pride in what they are producing and pride in themselves for doing a good job. So, if we were producing a line in low quality, it would have a negative effect on what we’re trying to do,” she said.
On average, inmates produce 10,000 jeans per year. It isn’t a large quantity, but it fits the demand of the brand’s wholesale partners, which consist of mom and pop shops. “That’s really where we excel,” Cannard said.
Working for Prison Blues not only gives an inmate a wage, but also workplace skills. Cannard said the technical skills inmates learn making Prison Blues span manufacturing, inventory and quality control, to soft skills, like teamwork and keeping a schedule.
As of now, the program has difficulty placing former inmates in similar positions due to the lack of manufacturing opportunities in the U.S. Cannard said there is one potential partner in the denim space who expressed interest in hiring the previously incarcerated, but those opportunities have so far been few and far between.
But the purpose of the Prison Blues program isn’t to place the inmates directly in denim manufacturing.
“When we survey potential employers and ask them what kind of skills they want us to train, nine times out of 10 they say, we don’t need technical skills; we can teach that. What we need are soft skills,” she said. “While yes, we produce jeans, our most important product is people who are ready to go back in the society and stay out of prison.”