View Full Version : Article: Inmates sewing prison blues

02-21-2005, 12:27 PM
Inmates sewing prison blues
Several men at Bucks Harbor make jeans for state prisoner

MACHIASPORT - If bluejeans are what every guy likes to wear, the Maine Department of Corrections has hit the target. All of the men among the state's adult prison population of about 2,000 dress in bluejeans. Standard issue is four pairs per guy.

That means there always will be steady work for about 12 inmates at the Downeast Correctional Facility at Bucks Harbor. It's their job to cut, sew and stitch the jeans that go out to the state's six adult prisons and facilities.

The inmates Down East have sewn more than 15,000 pairs of men's jeans since 2001 - when the state was building the new Maine State Prison at Warren and was reviewing all correctional policies at the same time.

"They used to have everyone in orange and even in their own clothes," said John Gilmore, who oversees garment production there. "Then they decided that all men would dress in jeans at all times."

Bucks Harbor got the benefit of that decision.

Beyond Washington County and outside of Maine's corrections industry, few are aware of the prison's presence in Bucks Harbor, at the lower end of Machiasport. Located at the former Bucks Harbor Air Force Station, it's not visible from Route 92.

It was opened in 1985 as a place for medium- and minimum-security inmates. It was built to house 96 prisoners, but serves as home for closer to 150.

The men at Bucks Harbor are incarcerated for a range of reasons - "everything," Mark Caton, the facility director, said, declining specifics.

Those who get called to work in the garments shop, a single-story steel building on the prison campus, consider themselves the luckiest men at Bucks Harbor. While many among this week's total of 147 inmates don't have work assignments during winter, the dozen who work sewing denim all day know they have been tapped for something good. The jobs are not only steady, they pay well by prison standards - up to $2.90 an hour.

"I'm honored to have this job," said Jason Bridges of Portland, 27, who has four years to go on his sentence. "It's probably the best job here."

Bucks Harbor wasn't always in the bluejeans business. The prison wanted its men to develop an industry useful to the state, much as the way license plates are manufactured at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

Gilmore was hired five years ago to teach the trade of upholstery. He and his wife previously had owned an upholstery shop in Machias. He trained six men for six months to restitch sofas, then saw the potential for more applications for the sewing skills.

Once he researched prison possibilities in 2001, bluejeans became the order of the day.

But the bluejeans out of Bucks Harbor cannot be sold commercially, because the Oregon Department of Corrections has the corner - and the trademark - on the outside market for prison-made jeans. Naturally, the brand is called Prison Blues.

The Bucks Harbor garment shop buys bluejeans kits from Oregon, then stitches them together in 40 steps. The Maine Department of Corrections pays a far lower price to outfit its inmates statewide by having Bucks Harbor inmates work from Oregon's pattern kits rather than purchase finished clothes for all.

Oregon's prison factory was started in 1989 with a federal government grant funded by drug money seizures. Today Oregon's Prison Blues brand is sold throughout the country, Japan and Europe.

Bucks Harbor administrators have been thinking creatively as well. The patent and pattern for prison-made jeans belongs to Oregon, but the Bucks Harbor inmates have developed their own line of jeans jackets.

Working from their own in-house pattern, they have already made 4,000 jackets for Maine inmates. An additional 2,000 are on order. The jean jackets design is both lined and unlined.

Gilmore and Sandra Altmannsberger, the facility's business director, wish they had the time to get the jeans jackets on the open market.

"I'm the business manager and in charge of that area," Altmannsberger said Wednesday. "But I don't have time to develop that business plan and search out contacts. John is wonderful at what he does, but he can't do that planning and run the shop, too."

Still, while inmates sit at work stations with sewing machines designed to handle denim, the brains are busy in the front office. Altmannsberger - a grandmother - thinks children's clothing made from denim could be a big seller beyond the prison fences.

Gilmore - a grandfather - brought in his grandson's pants about a month ago, and the inmates devised a pattern. Earlier this week, Gilmore held up the new pair with pride.

"That doesn't have the front snap yet," one of the inmates pointed out, proud of the group's work so far.

The children's clothing - once a range is in place - and jeans jackets could be marketed at retail prices under a federal permitting program called Prison Industry Enterprise, for which the Maine Department of Corrections is already covered.

A bit more paperwork would have to show that the Bucks Harbor inmates have been fairly paid for their work - which they are calling Harbor Blues.

Under the state's correctional facility regulations, the garments shop holds to a payment formula for a 35-hour week. Fifty percent of the inmates earn between 60 cents and $1.40 per hour. Another 25 percent earn between $1.50 and $2.20 per hour. The last 25 percent earn between $2.30 and $2.90 per hour.

When it's factored in that the inmates are not charged for their room and board, the pay equivalent calculates out to about the minimum wage.

But it's the work experience rather than the pay that keeps the inmates returning to the shop.

"A lot of these men never had a job on the outside," Gilmore said. "This isn't brain surgery, but it's important for them to come here and do something every day."

Orrin Goff of Kingsfield, 51, will be released from Downeast next week. He's been at Bucks Harbor nearly four years, and he hopes to find work driving a truck. But if that plan falls through, he has a fall back - sewing.

"I wish I knew these skills 20 years ago," Goff said from behind a surging machine.

"That's what I like about this job. It makes the time go by. You know you're in jail. You know you've done wrong. But something like this helps you make up your mind to do the right thing, to get a job.

"And that will make a world of difference."

09-09-2009, 10:31 AM
What a neat idea! Everyone needs clothes.... well, save for the nudists.