The prison appeal: Berliners flock to inmate designs

Shoppers at the Haeftling store can have Polaroid mug shots of themselves made, holding a plaque with their names spelled out in white block letters. The stereo system plays the soundtrack of the Coen brothers' prison film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" And customers browse through racks of striped jackets and shirts.

The jail motif is more than mere marketing gimmick, though. Everything sold at Berlin's Haeftling (which means "prisoner"), is designed, produced, and used by inmates at prisons across Germany and Switzerland. The line is all the rave in Berlin now - adding to prison coffers in a time of tightening budgets and narrowing the cultural divide between the prison population and the rest of society.

"We were convinced that it would come on well," says ad man Stephan Bohle, the mastermind behind Haeftling. "But we didn't expect such a demand."

What began as an online shop marketing shirts, jackets, and briefcases from a Berlin prison has grown into a bustling temporary shop in the city's working-class Kreuzberg district. Haeftling's product line now includes everything from slippers and underwear to black-cherry jam and an award-winning red wine. Twelve prisons in Germany and Switzerland produce for Haeftling, and Mr. Bohle is working on deals with prisons in Austria, Britain, and Italy.

Prison officials have been delighted by both the extra income and the attention. "It's great for the image," says Klaus-Dieter Blank, of Berlin's Tegel Prison. Haeftling features on the Tegel website and the success of the label's online store has meant that people are beginning to understand "what goes on behind the walls," he says.

German prisons are required to be self-sufficient, and for decades have produced furniture and work uniforms for city or state contractors, even some private clients. It was reading about Tegel's workshops last year that first gave Bohle the idea of selling jail wear.

In the year since, the brick prison compound, north of Berlin, has had to reorganize its textile workshop and add more machines to keep up with Haeftling demand. In the last half of 2003, the 1,700-inmate prison made $61,000. "We decided we needed to do more to increase our production" for the outside world, says Mr. Blank. "Of course, we have a few advantages, namely that the inmates aren't so expensive."

Prisoners earn, on average, $12 a day for an eight-hour shift, paid out by the state. Their products sell for much more. But critics, even in Germany's powerful unions, don't seem to mind that cheap labor has, in effect, been used to turn a profit. "I think it's actually quite sympathetic," says Markus Franz, a spokesman for the Federal Association of Labor. Unemployment is a chronic problem in the German prison system, which like the United States requires every capable prisoner to work five days a week.

The time spent in prison workshops also helps inmates prepare for their eventual release. "The positives of using prisoners far outweigh the possible criticisms," says Mr. Franz.

The atmosphere in the workshops at Tegel is relaxed. Prisoners don't wear uniforms, as they work diligently behind sewing and pressing machines. The workshop directors, all trained craftsmen, double as guards. They do not carry weapons. The prisoners, even those convicted of murder, may handle all the tools needed to make the products.

"Our job here is not just to teach them, but to treat them as human beings," says Klaus Rügenhagen, an upholsterer and furniture worker who joined the prison staff seven years ago. "Of course there are some you need to keep on a shorter leash. But that's the same as in the real world."

As diverse as the prisoners who create the items are the customers who buy them. Berlin "fashionistas" and blue-collar workers browsed through jeans and jackets there recently. Electronics shop owner Manfred Knobel, a return customer, picked up two shirts and a light jacket. "The stuff is well-made, and stylish," says Mr. Knobel.

Like most customers, Knobel also likes the fact that he's helping prisoners find work and a sense of pride. "There's no shame in being in prison," he says. "I think [the prisoners] will become more motivated. This is recognition."

The only criticism from customers, so far, is the noted absence of women's clothing - hardly a surprise considering they make up only 4 percent of Germany's prison population. To fill the demand, a prison in Aichach, Bavaria, will begin producing the skirts and jackets worn by their female inmates. "We even redesigned [the uniform] a bit, to make it more comfortable for our prisoners," says Guenter Rieger, head of the workshops at Aichach.

Haeftling is in talks with a few Paris designers. There is even talk of opening up a store in Los Angeles, where Bohle's wife comes from. The product line will nevertheless remain limited, in order to retain some exclusivity, Bohle says. "These are clothes that are timeless, and well made," he says. "It will always be limited and that is what is so special, it won't be some mass-produced product. People know that when they buy, they're buying a very special piece."

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