Friday, March 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fair Trade? Oregon Prisons Exporting Jeans


U.S. unions not happy

Prison programs have angered organized labor. John Zalusky, an AFL-CIO economist, said more than 25 state prison programs produce goods and services for sale.

Zalusky argued these programs often violate federal regulations, unfairly competing against private industry.

"Convicts should be paid fairly when they're required to work. To do less would be slavery," Zalusky said in written testimony before a Senate panel last October.


Trendy Japanese recently began buying up a new brand of U.S.-made jeans called "Prison Blues." They have a silk-screen stamp across the leg that says "inmate," and if they look authentic it's because they are.

Not only are the same jeans worn by inmates of the Oregon prison system, they are made by prisoners as well.

The export of U.S. goods made by U.S. prisoners has not been lost on officials in China, who have been sharply criticized by U.S. officials for exporting prisoner-made merchandise to the United States.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently visited China, carrying a warning that Beijing faces the loss of its most-favored-nation trade status with the United States unless it significantly improves its human-rights record.

Among the areas cited by the White House as particularly egregious is the use of forced prison labor to make goods for export.

A 1930 federal U.S. law prohibits importing goods made by prison labor, but the reverse is not true. The State Department is clearly uncomfortable that the prison systems of Oregon and California, which also is test-marketing inmate-made apparel in Asia, are involved in international trade.

Last week a State Department official pointedly noted that the federal Bureau of Prisons has a policy of not exporting prisoner-made goods and implied that he wished state prisons would do the same.

Beyond the diplomatic repercussions, Holly Burkhalter, Washington, D.C., director of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that there are wide differences between U.S. and Chinese prisons.

"Chinese prison labor is vastly different. There are unbelievably squalid conditions in which prisoners labor," said Burkhalter, whose group has interviewed former Chinese prison inmates.

And recent roundups of dissidents in China gave another indication that some of their detainees are political prisoners. But Burkhalter said that sometimes common criminals are kept in forced labor beyond the end of their sentences.

Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, said prison labor is an integral part of the Chinese economy and that it is likely such goods are still coming to the United States with legitimate exports. He said the Chinese have dragged their feet in allowing U.S. Customs officials access to suspected prison labor sites.

Last week, Harry Wu, a worker who spent 19 years in Chinese labor camps, estimated that there are 1,000 camps that use forced labor to produce goods exported to the United States and Europe.

Ore. inmates make $6-$8/hour

But in Oregon, Fred Nichols, the administrator of Unigroup, the division of the state's Department of Corrections that manages the prison industries, is a strong advocate for the program, which has been in effect for more than three years. He said it operates under federal rules that permit interstate sale of prisoner-made goods. The operation is strictly business, he said. Prisoners are paid $6 to $8 an hour, which he said is the prevailing wage for similar work (although about 80 percent of that pay goes for room, board and, in some cases, restitution to victims).

Nichols said the inmates go through a normal hiring interview, and if they are disciplined for work-related reasons, or fired, there is no additional correctional punishment.

"We want them to work in the same environment as on the outside," Nichols said.

Prison Blues are sold in 250 U.S. stores and in Japan, Italy and Germany. The "inmate" stamp is taken off jeans sold here as a courtesy to police who might otherwise mistake wearers for escapees.

Unigroup projects sales of $700,000 in Japan for 1994 and as much as $1.2 million in overall exports.

Dick Lowry, an assistant general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority, said California goods are just now being test-marketed. California is different from Oregon in that it pays inmates less than $1 an hour, but only allows the sale of goods to government agencies or for export. Sources said the State Department may be more concerned about California's program because of the low wages.

Lowry said he does not want to get caught in a political issue, but if there are markets for the prisoners' goods, he would like to move into them. He noted that the program would not expand internationally without state approval.

China redefines human rights

Harry Harding, a China scholar and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that instead of just denying that human rights is a legitimate issue for discussion, the Chinese may throw it back at the United States, bringing up U.S. homelessness, murder rates and government treatment of American Indians.

Chinese officials recently told Newsday that their definition of human rights included having enough to eat and a place to sleep, which they said the United States doesn't guarantee its citizens.

"It's a way of trying to make Americans feel uncomfortable and hypocritical," Harding said.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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