Prison: the end of the line. Justice for the victims, protection for society and punishment for the criminals. But what of rehabilitation? This week there are over 80,000 people banged up in the UK alone.  Many are repeat offenders. Rehabilitation, it seems, has become an afterthought. Who’s to blame? The red tops, politicians keen to appease the media? Both, perhaps. Problem is, simply locking people up without doing something to change their behaviour is a sticking plaster, not a cure. And an expensive one at that.



A prisoner with his Fine Cell Work








Surprisingly, fashion seems to have come up with an answer. Prison Blues, a brand of jeans, and Fine Cell Work, who make cushions, are two schemes that are tackling the rehabilitation issue. Both teach prisoners skills that have remarkable outcomes. And it’s not just about helping prisoners battle their demons: they produce some very desirable goods for sale on the outside. And this valuable link to the world over the wall seems to be making rehabilitation, or at least a more peaceful life, possible for some.



Prison Blues 50's Cut - Work






In the UK, Prison Blues jeans are sold by The America Ground, a clothing company based in Hastings. The story behind the name is in itself interesting. The shop is located on land that was taken over by rebels in the early 1800s. Inspired by the United States gaining its independence, they declared the small area their own state, refused to pay taxes, dubbed it The America Ground and flew the stars and stripes. This, of course, didn’t last long, and ended with the Crown claiming the land back some 20 years later. But the legend was what inspired Bob Tipler to start his company. “The area of land now forms part of a shopping centre in Hastings, and so my idea was to have a shop, selling Americana, at that address,” he says. In his quest for all things American, Tipler came across Prison Blues, a blue jean brand manufactured by inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Oregon. Their tag line is Made On The Inside To Be Worn On The Outside. The jeans, meanwhile, are steeped in authentic American style. It was a perfect fit for Tipler’s vision. “There’s just one style,” Tipler explains. “We don’t go around changing them for trends, they’re just very heavy duty, 15oz denim, straight leg jeans.” Apparently, they are a particular favourite of lumberjacks in Oregon. In the UK Prison Blues are known for their genuine Made In The U.S.A. appeal. 

But what of the prison aspect? Do people buy into the brand because of a perverse fascination with it being made inside? Tipler says not. “I think the main thing they like is the authenticity of it. You will get the odd person who will go out of their way to buy something that’s made in a prison, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s really driving it. It’s a gimmick if you like, but if the jeans were the wrong shape or the wrong colour, then people wouldn’t buy them anyway. If anything, there is a feel good factor to buying them, because I think they genuinely are trying to do the right thing by these prisoners. Having been over there, I came face to face with the fact that the prisoners have a good working relationship with this factory. You know they work with knives and scissors, so they have to earn their right to get a job within the facility.” There is currently a three-year waiting list for inmates wanting to work in the Prison Blues factory. They receive around 30% of a proper wage after bed, board and victim restitution payments are paid. With the responsibility of a job and proper training that is easily used on the outside, the re-offending rate of inmates who have worked on the project is 50% less than those who don’t.




Kelvin stitching in his cell for Fine Cell Work






Closer to home Fine Cell Work is based in Central London. A charity, it was first registered in 1995, although it has been going much longer. Elena Hall, the design manager, explains: “The idea for it came about in the 1960s from Lady Anne Tree, a prison visitor at HMP Holloway, who was also very well connected. Basically she conceived this idea that needle work was a very logical activity for prisoners to do because it’s easy to do in confinement and you don’t need very much, just a needle, thread and some fabric. But her idea was very much that there was a market for high quality hand stitched work and that the prisoners should be paid for it.” The enterprise relies on skilled volunteers to teach prisoners needlepoint. They then produce a whole array of beautiful hand-stitched home furnishings, bags and quilts. Many projects are one-off bespoke designs. Commissions have come from English Heritage, the Jerwood Foundation and even royalty, and work has also been displayed at theV&A Museum in London.






A prisoner hand stiching a Love Eagle Tattoo cushion, deigned by Karen Nicol for Fine Cell Work





Tipler’s point that people won’t buy into a gimmick alone, that there has to be something worth buying to back it up, chimes here too. And again the incentive of being paid is what draws the prisoners to try the work in the first place. But the project then often leads them towards other positive steps. “What they learn through stitching are very transferable skills, namely perseverance and patience,” says Hall. “We also find more and more, that people that are working with us go on to do other educational courses within the prison, finding out that they’re good at something. It’s getting that sense of courage and achievement, then their confidence builds and they feel like they want to take something else on.” Needlework is something that anyone can try despite the high rates of illiteracy, and it also gives a sense of calm to prisoners that are often locked up for 17 hours a day. “For some, when a long weekend is in store, when they know they’re going to be locked up from Friday lunchtime to Monday morning, it’s a real worry if they think they’re not going to have their stitching,” says Hall.



Prison Blues 50's Cut Jeans in Regular Black, perfect for the growing  trend for a 40's style wide leg 





Prison Blues and Fine Cell Work are both small schemes, but they show that rehabilitation works. Locking people up and throwing away the key doesn’t.

Wandsworth and Moustaches cushions from Fine Cell Work 




Text: Polly Braithwaite

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