Prison Blues, from the Big House in Oregon to you


The advertisement for jeans made by prisoners kind of jolts you at first: Others use sex to sell their jeans. In our case, that didn't seem appropriate. The product line is called Prison Blues. The clothes are made by inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary and bear the motto: Made on the inside to be worn on the outside.

After seeing the ad in Vibe magazine, I called 1 (800) 597-7472 for a free catalog. A woman answered the phone, "The Big House, this is Fran."

The Big House?

I asked for a catalog.

"What's your address?" she asked.

Now, would you give your home address to a company called the Big House to buy clothes made by guys convicted of manslaughter, rape and robbery?

"Oh, we're a private company," she said. "That way people aren't afraid to give us information. You didn't actually reach the prison."

Whew. The inmates at Oregon State Prison have been making blue jeans for four years. The jeans look like your basic Levi or Lee denims with five pockets. Prison Blues jeans cost $26 to $35.

The felons also make shorts, women's jeans, work shirts, sweat shirts, duffel bags and book bags and jackets (which come with or without the 12-inch gold shield that says Oregon Prison Blues on the back like the ones worn by inmates).

L Then there are the T-shirt designs silk-screened by inmates:

Sentenced to life of planet Earth. Do Life. Wear them out.

Break Out. Above the Wall.

One shirt has slash marks across the front, as if someone was counting off the days till parole.

The jeans are just now being advertised in popular magazines like Vibe, which caters to young people interested in rap. But Prison Blues weren't created to feed the gangsta image. It just kind of comes along with the territory, according to Charles Denight of Dalbey & Denight Advertising, which promotes the garments.

"We don't want to make a gangster image. We're not trying to promote that. It's just inherent in the product," Denight said.

But someone from New York ordered jeans because his friends think he's a wimp. "He wants to prove to them he's not," Denight said.

Denight sees Prison Blues as a social program to rehabilitate inmates and teach them good work habits. There is a waiting list of 200 inmates for jobs. Right now the business employs 70. The goal is to employ 300.

"It's gonna happen. We just have to get the sale of jeans up. The more we sell, the more jobs we have," Denight says.

The money from sales goes back into the work program. This past fiscal year, sales hit $2 million, which is a minuscule portion of the jeans market but an improvement from the first-year sales of $300,000.

The inmates are paid minimal amounts until they are trained well. Then they earn minimum wage. Those who choose to be paid a piece rate can make $7 to $8 an hour.

But they don't keep much of the money. About 80 percent goes toward room and board, restitution, family support and taxes. What little is left they can save in an account to use once out of prison. Some inmates have several thousand dollars saved up.

"They love making money," Denight said. "All of them think they're going to get out some day."

Other prisons produce clothes for their own inmates but not for sale. In Ohio, inmates make work pants, shirts and shoes for prisoners. They also make soap, sheets, mattresses, furniture, brooms and snow plow parts for state and local government institutions. And don't forget license plates.

The guys in Oregon don't even make license plates, but that won't keep them from running a future ad with a nude man holding a license plate in front of his crotch.

The headline says: Your car wears prison made products, now you can too.

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