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Inmates Discover Prison Sells : Think all prisoners make license plates? Not anymore. Now it's crafts--and jeans.

December 07, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside the hand-cut blue-granite walls of Folsom Prison, artistically inclined murderers and robbers create purses, jewelry and sketches of Elvis to sell to the public.

San Quentin's aesthetic elite churns out cable-car music boxes that play "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

And, in Oregon, incarcerated Calvin Kleins produce a line of jeans and T-shirts called Prison Blues, which are marketed to stores around the globe. The slogan: "Made on the inside to be worn on the outside."

Behind bars everywhere, it seems, prisoners are branching out from license plates and roadside trash cleanup to the finer arts of ballet, needlepoint and manufacturing hot dogs.

The results, jail officials say, are a boost both to inmate morale and state coffers.

Prison products have also gained cachet with consumers.

At Folsom, for example, a few visitors reportedly do all their Christmas shopping at the inmate gift shop. The merchandise includes wallets, bolo ties, belts, children's moccasins, sterling silver rings with snake heads, paintings by prisoner Picassos, holsters and such jailhouse schlock as miniature-beer-can key chains.

For more refined tastes, there's the "Folsom Prison Weather Rock." Put it outdoors and become an instant meteorologist, the instructions advise: If the rock gets wet, it's raining; if it turns white, it's snowing, and if it disappears, you've been ripped off.

Money from sales--minus a 9% cut for administrative costs--goes to the artist who created the work. The prisoners generally use the income to buy more supplies, stock up on canteen goods or support children and spouses on the outside, jail officials say.

Merchandise varies from prison to prison.

San Quentin, for instance, is known for its scale-model cable cars, crafted out of walnut and rigged with miniature lights, clocks or music boxes. Death Row inmates at the penitentiary contribute afghans, acrylic paintings and handmade greeting cards.

At the women's jail in Frontera, on the other hand, the focus is on crocheted baby booties, infant clothing, cross-stitchery and beaded jewelry.

Prisoners elsewhere in the state find creative expression in juggling, ballet and painting classes taught by outside artists hired by the Department of Corrections.

"It's a real positive outlet for inmates," says Blanche Batiz, hobby-craft manager at Frontera, one of the few Southern California clinks that sells cellmate artwork. "It gives them something to do with their time . . . (and) that keeps them out of trouble."

Partly for that reason, most prisons also have industrial programs to keep their "guests" occupied. In Nevada, inmate entrepreneurs make stained-glass windows, build limousines and restore classic cars for a Las Vegas hotel. Illinois convicts reportedly manufacture everything from hot dogs to cleaning supplies.

In California, the captive labor pool--working for less than $1 an hour--grinds eyeglasses for Medi-Cal patients, milks cows for inmate cafeterias, assembles furniture for government offices and helps extinguish wildfires.

Last year, such ventures brought in $136 million, all of which was plowed back into the prison industrial program. Corrections officials hope to increase that figure by selling blue jeans made at the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo.

Although California law forbids penitentiary products from being sold commercially in the United States--for fear that inmates might take work from law-abiding citizens--foreign distribution is fair game. So state officials have begun test-marketing the jail jeans in Asia and Europe.

For the moment, however, Oregon has the lock on penitentiary fashion. Inmate sweat shirts, shorts, denim jackets and logger jeans--stone-washed in prison laundries--are carried by small retail outlets nationwide and overseas.

The state also promotes a prisoner-built line of bedroom furniture under the Mill Creek label. Oregon, which has no law against selling inmate goods in this country and requires prisoners to work or study 40 hours per week, pays its jail laborers $5 to $8 per hour, but keeps most of the salaries for room and board, a victim assistance fund and income taxes, says Fred Nichols, administrator of the program.

At Folsom, directly across from the prisoner gift shop is a museum and store run by retired corrections officers. Items for sale include "Folsom Bed and Breakfast" T-shirts, ball-and-chain key rings, mugs, hats, bumper stickers and--just in time for the holidays--shirts depicting an overfed, red-suited gentleman scaling the prison walls.

The caption: "Santa Knows Who's Been Naughty or Nice."

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