Behind Bars

(Published in the February 2011 issue of Stitches Magazine)

Many U.S. prison systems allow inmates to work in in-house embroidery shops that service external clients. Brilliant rehab move or way to undercut competitors? It depends who you ask.

By Daniel Walsh

Pam Elliott sits at a computer in her workshop in Billings, MT, working on a digital design for a dog bandana. She tweaks a few things, then stands and walks over to the nearby screen-printing machine, where the design will be embellished on a bandana that will be sold to a local dog owner. “I edited two or three different clip-art images, and then added text,” says Elliott, a 45-year-old brunette and mother of three. “That dog’s name is Geyser. They’re hunting dogs, obviously.” Elliott works as a decorator Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., just like anyone else might.

The difference is that Elliott does it inside Montana Women’s Prison, where she’s serving a 30-year sentence for deliberate homicide. Montana is one of an increasing number of states to run decorated apparel operations inside their prisons. Inmates train and work in commercial operations providing embroidery, screen printing and other apparel decoration. Some, like Montana and West Virginia, have small operations that only sell to schools, school organizations, nonprofit groups, and state agencies and have just a handful of workers. The inmates with the best behavior records draw these jobs, learning how to work commercial embroidery machines and design spirit wear for schools and T-shirts for charities.

Other states, like Iowa and Utah, tie into a federal program that allows them to partner with private companies that can sell to anyone. Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas partnered with a company called Impact Design to create a three-shift, 24-7 operation that is one of the nation’s largest contract decorators – and the fourth-largest, public-private prison labor partnership in any industry, according to the National Correctional Industries Association.

Advocates of these programs say they help rehabilitate inmates by teaching them job and life skills that prepare them to return and contribute to society in a positive way, and many inmates prize the jobs as being among the most desirable in their respective prisons. A 2009 study by the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on correctional industries resulted in $32.70 less spent on dealing with ex-convicts renewing their criminal behavior, a practice known as recidivism.

“Ninety-seven percent of offenders who are here are going to be released,” says Donna Gober, brand manager for Washington Correctional Industries, which runs embroidery and screen-printing operations. “They’re going to be your neighbor. I’d much rather have someone with job skills next door to me than someone without them, because the risk of recidivism is so much lower.”

Some critics, however, say some prison operations exploit powerless inmates in order to make money for private companies and push for reforming the system. “The current situation with regards to prisoners is equivalent to slave labor,” says Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News magazine and co-author of Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment. “In their present form, they shouldn’t exist.” Meanwhile, questions consistently arise over whether companies using prison labor benefit from cheap labor. “They’re allowing someone to compete at an unfair advantage,” says Harvey Mackler, owner of Gempire, a Florida-based distributor.

What’s clear is that not all prison apparel operations are created equal. To understand the differences, it helps to understand how it all works.


Prison labor has existed for almost as long as there have been prisons. Australia owes its origins to the British Empire’s founding of penal colonies on the continent in the late 18th century. Japan and China have long put their prison inmates to work, and few things in human history were as notorious as Siberian labor camps in the former Soviet Union. In the U.S., the 13th Amendment explicitly allows prison labor, stating, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Despite constitutional protection, the use of prison labor in the U.S. had its share of infamy too, largely in the Deep South, until the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 vastly expanded the rights of workers, including prisoners. “Wardens would lease out convicts to mills, plantations and the like,” says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. “Either the warden would personally get wealthy in the process, or the money would go back to the state. That’s sort of the underbelly of the history here. That’s why Taft-Hartley addressed this.” Taft-Hartley improved the rights of workers, but it also altered the prospect of private partnerships for prison labor, which cut out a source of revenue for running the prisons themselves.

Then in 1979, Justice System Improvement Act authorized prisons to engage in private interstate commerce – and partnerships with private industry through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certificate Program, or PIE program, as it’s typically called. PIE programs have several requirements, such as mandates to pay their inmate employees prevailing wages similar to what they would earn on the outside, provide written assurance they won’t displace workers at competing companies, and ensure all inmate participation is voluntary. Currently, 37 states have PIE programs, and most states aim for them to be financially self-sustainable. As of September 2005, they had generated a combined $198.7 million for victims’ programs, prison room and board costs, inmate family support and state and federal taxes.

Many such operations are financially self-sustaining, such as the one in Kansas. “We try to teach inmates skills to prepare them for their release, and at the same time, we have to be profitable,” says Alan James, director of Utah Correctional Industries. Some have had erratic histories, such as Washington, which had a thriving program until the Washington Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and shut it down till a state constitutional amendment reauthorized it in 2007. Few companies were willing to take a chance on it after that, in part because of uncertainty but also because of the economy. Louisiana’s prison industries have been hit by the economy too. “Especially with the economic downturn lately, we’ve had some companies that want to do it, but for some reason or another, they haven’t taken that final step,” says Mike Moore, director of Louisiana Prison Enterprises.

The jobs in PIE programs are often viewed as the best in the prisons and become an incentive for good behavior. “It’s a way of rewarding and punishing inmates,” Ross says. “Prisoners know that. If they don’t follow the rules, working in the prison industry will be taken away from them.” That doesn’t mean inmates are getting rich off them. Prisons can take as much as 80% of inmates’ paychecks to put toward victim restitution, room and board costs, and other PIE-related expenses. Also, the National Correctional Industries Association found six of 17 PIE programs it assessed “had wage issues of some kind” that were later resolved, in two cases with back wages being paid to inmates who were underpaid.

Friedmann says what often happens is that prisons pay minimum wage rather than prevailing wage. Still, even that is more than inmates are paid in non-PIE programs, which pay most inmates under $1 an hour to work. Still, it’s often better than kitchen duty. “It’s considered beneficial to be in the industry’s program,” says Eddie Long, director of West Virginia Correctional Industries. “It gives them something to do. It keeps them busy, and they’re getting paid.”


Stepping inside the embroidery and screen-printing workshop at Montana Women’s Prison isn’t all that different from going into a similar shop in the free world. Sure, there’s the metal detector, a couple fences, and all the locked doors, but it’s really pretty minor once you’re inside. Workers clad in black shirts, khaki pants and sneakers move about freely, and there are just a few of them, as this is a pretty small operation. A dog named Leo walks around their feet and under tables, one of 100 rescued dogs inmates trained in 2010 to prepare them for adoption. Manager Kevin Mickelson handles sales and marketing in his office. There’s not a single corrections officer in the workshop.

Before she went to prison in 2009, 27-year-old Emily James worked for Sutton’s Sportswear, an embroidery and screen-printing company in Billings, MT, that closed in 2009. She says the only differences between Sutton’s and the prison’s operation is that Sutton’s was busier and bigger, with contracts for major companies like Nike. The industrial shop, James says, feels like normal life. “There’s kind of a code of working in here,” James says. “You treat everyone with respect. It’s not like that in the rest of the prison. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of negativity.”

That’s part of why the women try to get in here, but it’s also the opportunity to do interesting and creative work. Most Montana inmates interviewed for this story had artistic backgrounds, including James, a skilled sketch artist with a love of Hello Kitty. She named her son, Ondrej, after a popular drawing by artist Shepard Fairey, who’s best known for his iconic “HOPE” poster featuring then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. “You don’t meet a lot of people who are worldly and into culture,” says Lacey Tollefson, a 24-year-old former garage band drummer who works with the shop’s six-head embroidery machine, which she says is really a four-head since two heads are broken. “So it’s interesting that we all gravitated to this shop.” Montana Women’s Prison apparel shop isn’t part of the PIE program, so much of the work there doing is for schoolchildren and charities. “I love it,” says Pam Elliott, the shop’s lead designer. “Not only is it good experience on the design part of it, but it’s also doing something positive for someone.”

Without exception, these women come across as women who could be working in any other decorated apparel shop in the country – or they could be your sister, daughter or mother. Elliott’s oldest daughter will graduate college this year with a double major in criminal justice and psychology, while her son is in the National Guard. James shows a cartoony T-shirt design she created that’s based on her son, who she used to take to a nearby park before she was convicted in 2009. Tollefson falls into conversation with a reporter about their shared love of the Smashing Pumpkins and promptly writes down a list of other rock bands the reporter should explore. “It’s good to have civilians come in here and realize we’re normal people,” James says as she works on a T-shirt screen print for students at a school in Roberts, MT.

Like many from rural Montana, they ran into substance abuse problems – either theirs or others’ – that led to the crimes for which they were eventually convicted. The methamphetamine epidemic flourishes in rural agricultural areas, and Montana is no exception. “If it wasn’t for drugs and alcohol, none of these ladies would be here,” Mickelson says. But, they’re there. Some, like 32-year-old former methamphetamine addict Cassandra Wood, are serving short sentences for drug charges or related crimes. “Meth was my life,” Wood says. “I put it before everything and everyone.” Others are in for more serious crimes. Tollefson stabbed two strangers during a drug and alcohol-induced fog she says she doesn’t remember. Elliott’s fourth child ended up dead in a trash bag on a shelf in her home as she struggled with substance abuse. (She says the child was stillborn – and authorities admitted they could not prove otherwise, according to court records – but Elliott was convicted of homicide after hiding the child’s existence.) James fatally stabbed a drug-addicted boyfriend during a fight in their apartment not far from the prison, and was convicted of mitigated deliberate homicide. “I used to live five blocks away from here,” James says. “So I can walk outside and see the park where I used to take my son. I can see the gas station where I went for tea.”

Annamae Siegfried-Derrick, the prison’s public and victim information officer, says she respects the women trying to turn their life around. “In a lot of cases, their whole life changed because of a choice they made,” Siegfried-Derrick says. “Whether alcohol or drugs played a part of it is probable. But they made a choice to do something rather than walk away. They already have a label and a stigma on their heads. They’re convicted felons. That’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives.”


If Montana’s program is at one end of the pendulum, Kansas is on the other. The state prison system here, led by recently retired secretary of corrections Roger Werholtz, has been viewed as a model for other states for its low rates of recidivism and successful transitioning of inmates back into society. “The highest correlations are with those who have a job,” says Kansas State Representative Pat Colloton. “So it’s a very high priority within the Kansas prison system to do job training.” A state budget crunch has necessitated cuts to the corrections budget, but Colloton say prison industries won’t be touched because they’re financially self-sustaining.

Impact Design employs about 250 medium security inmates at its PIE-certified contract decorating operation inside Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, KS. “We pay prevailing wage,” says Impact Design President Josh Batz. “One of the biggest misconceptions is we don’t pay these guys. Because we pay these guys prevailing wage, we don’t have any competitive advantage.” He says he actually has to pay more because of the need for managerial supervision over inmate workers. “The one advantage I have is, to my work force it’s a high-wage, high-prestige job,” Batz says. “But outside the prison, it’s a low-wage, low-prestige job. That’s the one thing to take away. It’s not a cost advantage – it’s a motivation advantage.”

Batz declines to name the companies that have done business with Impact Design, other than saying he deals largely with distributors in the promotional products industry. Some clients are clearly well-known brands though. A review of Nevada government documents, online news releases and Batz’s 2007 interview with Impressions magazine produces a list of brands that includes TEHAMA, Tricots St. Raphael, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, Nike Golf, Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene and IZOD G. (The deal for the last three, however, was “short lived” and “never really got off the ground,” according to Bill Kluber, a spokesman for parent company Van Heusen.)

Batz’s inclination to not identify those companies ends up being part of a pattern. A Kansas prison spokesman referred press inquiries to Lansing Correctional Facility Deputy Warden Kyle Deere, who declined to answer questions about Impact Design, other than to say how many medium security inmates worked there. “Really, until they give their approval concerning their operations, I’m not really at liberty to give any more information right now,” Deere says. When asked why he couldn’t give more information, he says, “Because I don’t want to.” When Batz was asked why he bought the company in 2005, he says simply, “It was for sale.” (When pressed further, he says only, “Really strong manufacturing company, with good quality processes and excellent management.”) Impact Design’s web site touts their 24-7 operation but makes no mention of the fact that prison employees man it. Batz says clients know, however. “We’re very frank about it with our clients, but we don’t market ourselves to the public, so there’s no reason to put that in public because we don’t sell to the public,” he says.

Such practices don’t always go over well with others. Ira Neaman, president of Vantage Apparel, says he believes there needs to be public transparency about companies’ labor. “It puts the industry in a difficult place,” Neaman says. “If 60 Minutes comes into a prison and they’re putting a Coca-Cola logo on the Nike shirt, what is the chairman of Nike going to say? What’s the chairman of Coca-Cola going to say?” Neaman alludes to Nike’s past usage of labor in Asian “sweatshops,” which drew public protests that prompted Nike to change its practices. “Does the apparel distributor know?” Neaman says. “Does the end-user know? Does the brand that hired the decorator know?”

Friedmann says they often don’t know the labor source because there may be layers of subcontractors. “The companies generally don’t like to advertise that,” says Friedmann, who spent 10 years in a Tennessee prison and worked there for a screen-printing operation producing T-shirts for Taco Bell and other major brands. “If Victoria’s Secret let people know that their frilly, skimpy undergarments were made at a prison, that might not go over so well. Sometimes it goes through a subcontractor who maybe subcontracts out to someone else. Whether or not the brand name company knows it’s being produced there is another thing. It’s insulated.”


Whatever outside debates rage over the ethics of prison embroidery and screen printing, the activity offers inmates a measure of hope because of the success stories of ex-convicts who have productive lives after their releases. Peter Ninemire spent time in federal prison for growing marijuana. After his release from prison, he got a masters degree in social work from Wichita State University and now works as an addiction treatment supervisor for the Sedgwick County Drug Court in Kansas. “It worked great for me,” Ninemire says. “It gave me some new skills. It helped me to get where I am.”

At Montana Women’s Prison, Emily James eventually hopes to leave in order to do embroidery and screen printing on the outside. When she was sentenced in 2009, she publicly read a 9.5-minute statement about herself and her late boyfriend, Seth Drinkwater, at a court hearing. (The video remains online at She talked about her dreams, her loves, his drug problem how she tried to help him beat it, and how she’ll forever regret the day she stabbed him during an argument. “Seth didn’t deserve any of the pain that he endured,” she said during the tearful video. “Whether it was from the drugs or by my hand, I never meant for him to be hurt. I love Seth so very much. All I wanted to do was protect him, but I failed.”

Nearly two years later, she has had a lot of time to think about her and Drinkwater’s families. “They lost their son,” James says. “My mom lost a daughter. I try to live with a lot of empathy. When you’re in here, you just start to look at things differently. You learn not to take things for granted. You look at people who come here for a few months and go out. I’d like the opportunity to do that too, live a normal life.”


There’s another model for embroidery in prisons, and that’s the Ray Materson model. Materson, 56, went to prison in 1987 as a college-educated cocaine addict imprisoned for robbing someone for drug money. In prison, he picked up hand embroidery one day while thinking of his grandmother, who hand-embroidered. “It turned out this guy in the next cell was hanging up these socks to dry,” Materson says. “They were blue and yellow, or blue and maize, for the colors of (the University of) Michigan. I had a lot of good memories in Ann Arbor. So I swapped a pack of cigarettes for the socks, and I unraveled them and got a hoop.”

That hoop, of course, was handmade from a round Rubbermaid container. “I whittled the top off of it and made myself an embroidery hoop,” Materson says. “And I tore off a piece of my sheet and cut it into a letter ‘M,’ and I taught myself to embroider.” Inmates asked for Puerto Rican flags, Harley Davidson emblems, and various other designs, and Materson obliged.

Today, Materson is a well-known and respected embroidery artist, activist for the Vermont-based Community Justice Project, author of the book, Sins and Needles, which tells his story. He advocates prison programs teaching inmates to embroider. He has contacted several state prison systems about the idea but never heard back.

A successful model for this thrives in Great Britain, where the charity Fine Cell Work trains prison inmates to embroidery by hand. In 2008, 403 inmates earned 61,890 British pounds, or $96,363.10, for embroidering cushions, clothing, bedspreads, quilts, bags and cushions. Those cushions are popular with customers, with prices ranging from 45 to 150 pounds, or about $70 to $234. “It brings a calmness, focus and a kind of meditative quality that comes through, that releases people from their anxieties,” says Katy Emck, chief executive of Fine Cell Work. “Now if you can imagine this inside a prison, that can be a lifeline.”

Materson and Emck believe that can have a role in rehabilitating convicts because it affects how inmates spend their time in prison. Inmates can get involved in prison gangs, drugs and weightlifting, or they can look inward and consider how they got there. “Prison saved my life,” Materson says. “You could still get drugs or anything you want in prison. But I was sentenced to 15 years. That’s a pretty lengthy stretch. That gave me some serious time to look at what I was doing wrong.”


“It puts the industry in a difficult place. If 60 Minutes comes into a prison and they’re putting a Coca-Cola logo on the Nike shirt, what is the chairman of Nike going to say? What’s the chairman of Coca-Cola going to say?”

Ira Neaman, Vantage Apparel

“We try to teach inmates skills to prepare them for their release, and at the same time, we have to be profitable.”

Alan James, Utah Correctional Industries

“There’s kind of a code of working in here. You treat everyone with respect. It’s not like that in the rest of the prison. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of negativity.”

Emily James, inmate, Montana Women’s Prison

See video footage of what life is like inside a prison embroidery shop.

Listen to a podcast interview with Ray Materson.