Prison-made goods struggle to find consumer niche

TOKYO —

From as early as the 1780s, Japan’s penal system gradually began to shift from punishment to reform, and prison labor gained in importance as a means to teach convicts a usable trade or skill. Even as recently as 2010, according to government figures, 68.3% of the individuals in prisons were “of no occupation” at the time of their incarceration. By teaching them a useful trade while they served their sentence, it was hoped they would find employment and fit in better as responsible members of society upon their release.

Nikkei Business (Dec 10) reports that in the past, much of the prison labor involved producing such home furnishings as chests of drawers, dining tables, reception room ensembles (composed of chairs, sofas, coffee tables), and also making shoes. The various prisons around Japan also specialized in different types of goods, which were offered to the public at various events.

Thanks to the “extremely low” costs paid for the labor, such goods were cheap—perhaps half the price of similar furnishings produced on the outside. And their quality was reasonably satisfactory, so prison-made items enjoyed relatively good reception in consumer markets.

Unfortunately, the designs failed to keep up with current preferences, and particularly younger purchasers found the image of owning something made in a prison to be rather unappealing.

In the decade between 2002 and 2011, sales of prison-made goods declined by nearly half, from about 8.1 billion to 4.5 billion yen. A key factor for this decline was due to the economic recession taking place “outside the walls.” Small and medium-sized businesses making competing products began to teeter, and more Japanese companies began sourcing their products from southeast Asia, with its lower labor costs.

For various changes related to lifestyles and demographics, moreover, demand for furniture in Japan has continued to fall. For instance, fewer young people means fewer marriages, and hence fewer recipients for wedding gifts. And with price deflation ongoing, prison-made goods are no longer able to undersell the competition.

Prison workshops were willing to change to more appealing products, but lacked the capital to invest in new equipment. Rather than jobs that helped convicts develop useful skills, more prisons were forced to accept menial jobs such as pasting the bottoms of paper bags in order to keep the workers occupied.

But one has got to give Japanese credit for entrepreneurial acumen—even the Bureau of Corrections. Take the new “Hello Kitty” Daruma plush toys being produced at Kurobane Prison in Otawara City, Tochigi Prefecture. Developed in cooperation with Sanrio Corp, the toys are said to be selling well. At the penitentiary for juveniles in Hakodate City, a new “Marugoku Series” of products—with a distinctive logos bearing the character “goku” (prison) within a circle—has gone on the market, with retro-styled aprons, tote bags, accessory cases and others—that offer a stylishly naughty design at affordable prices.

Word of the goods spread by mouth and the Marugoku line has become quite popular. Sales since their introduction in 2008 have surpassed 52,000 items, which brought in revenues of about 60 million yen.

“The Marugoku Series was not something subcontracted from an outside company but originated as our own in-house brand,” an official at the Bureau of Corrections told the magazine. “This has helped to raise the prisoners’ morale, and has done a good job of boosting the prison labor force.”

The total number of people serving prison terms in Japan (as of the end of 2010) was 63,845. By comparison, Japan’s largest employer is Toyota Motor Co, with 69,000 workers. From the business standpoint, the 4.5 billion yen in revenues from prison-made goods seems small. But if the discharged prisoners bring their new skills to the labor force, a favorable impact on the economy can be expected. By generating “hit” products, the prisoners can take pride in their work, and in themselves, and hopefully avoid recidivism. In its own small way, their labors may be helping to give themselves a better future.

For those with mailing addresses in Japan who would like to shop for a unique prison-made Christmas gift, with all major credit cards accepted, the “capic” online shop can be accessed at:
http://www.e-capic.com/SHOP/44106/44225/list.html

  • 0

    Frungy

    I just went to this page... everything has PRISON written on it. I mean seriously people, what marketing genius thought that up?? Zippo used to manufacture their lighters in prisons, but you sure as hell didn't see the words, "Made by hardened criminals" anywhere on the products.

  • 11

    Alex Einz

    and whats wrong with that exactly? Prisoners are human same as anyone else,why would it be a deterrent is beyond me or would you rather all your products made by underage kids in China under slavery conditions?

  • 2

    psychopathsareincontrol

    USA has perfected this business model - with over 2 million in prison at the end of 2010 it's a huge, very low pay work force.

  • 0

    GW

    I have been to sales at a local shrine of this stuff, decent stuff, I have a kleenex box in front of me bought there.

    I also bought a couple of the izakaya type "aprons" & sent one to my brother back home & its a hit when he wears it around the BBQ!

  • 2

    papigiulio

    Let them make stuff we actually need. Let them build shelters in Tohoku etc., that kind of stuff, they are not there for their holidays.

  • 3

    lucabrasi

    I'm not particularly pro-business, but it seems a bit unfair to me to have a captive, low-paid workforce competing in the open market with companies that have to pay their workforce properly and provide working conditions attractive enough to retain their employees.

    Couldn't the prisoners be making furniture for government offices or toys for orphanages, saving the country money while still being usefully employed?

  • 0

    gaijinfo

    This is good in theory, but actually it's only half baked. Forced labor doesn't really do a very good job, so it's not very productive. History is rife with examples of ineffiencies of slave labor. (e.g. the million "immortals" who were easily defeated by the Spartans, the whole Persian army defeated by Alexander, the Mongol ships, which were poorly made by slave labor in their attempt to conquer Japan).

    A better system would be to pay them in credits. The better work they do, the more credits they earn per hour. If they choose not to work, they get the bare minimum credits.

    The sooner they get a certain number of credits, the sooner they're released. That way, at least they'd be motivated to do a good job.

    Otherwise, there's no incentive.

  • -3

    Frungy

    Alex EinzDec. 21, 2012 - 09:23AM JST and whats wrong with that exactly? Prisoners are human same as anyone else,why would it be a deterrent is beyond me or would you rather all your products made by underage kids in China under slavery conditions?

    ... so the only difference between the two is the age?

  • 1

    as_the_crow_flies

    “The Marugoku Series was not something subcontracted from an outside company but originated as our own in-house brand,” an official at the Bureau of Corrections told the magazine. “This has helped to raise the prisoners’ morale, and has done a good job of boosting the prison labor force.”

    By generating “hit” products, the prisoners can take pride in their work, and in themselves, and hopefully avoid recidivism.

    So what do the prisoners themselves say about their morale? As far as I understand, this is forced labour, aword which this article conveniently sidesteps. And anyway, what is

    "boosting the prison labour force"?

    I agree that if there is to be forced labour, the best way would be to work on things of social benefit. Low cost geiger counters or dosometers? Tyvek suits? Stuff the cleanup workers need at Fukushima Daichi, perhaps?

  • 2

    Alex Einz

    Dear Frungy, you should really try a bit of inside time...between sitting in a tiny cell with another 20 grumpy and cold prisoners and doing actual work that makes you tired enough to go to sleep, you will be surprised that you will want to do anything to pass the time, while making some kind of money. prisoner labor is no slavery,and they can always choose detention besides...it is not like anyone forced anyone to do crimes....

  • -2

    Dennis Bauer

    Maybe they should become Mangaka's and make Manga's

  • 1

    sengoku38

    @frungy

    I just went to this page... everything has PRISON written on it. I mean seriously people, what marketing genius thought that up?? Zippo used to manufacture their lighters in prisons, but you sure as hell didn't see the words, "Made by hardened criminals" anywhere on the products.

    It would be cool to have a beer bottle opener or lighter that says "made by hardened criminals!!"

  • 0

    buchailldana

    I have a replica of a harp made my an IRA guy when he was in prison.was sort of obliged to buy the ticket and then won the harp.good quality

  • -1

    cramp

    its the product, not the maker...

    people wouldn't give a crap who made it if it was a good product

  • 0

    lostrune2

    They should make 'em badass. If it's from prison, people would like it to be badass!

  • 1

    ebisen

    frungy

    everything has prison written on it. I mean seriously people, what marketing genius thought that up??

    if you would have read the article, you would have known that this brand is actually a hit... so yes, it is good marketing, unlike you reading and comprehension skills.

  • 0

    akkk1

    cheap goods made by low-paid prison labor is a good bargain in these inflationary times.

  • -1

    virgo

    I think japan has a good idea. Now of course there should be firm regulations as to limit abuse but if low level criminals can learn something that they can take pride in...they may be able to get work on the outside. Or maybe learn better habits for life.

  • -1

    philly1

    If not some bad-ass cachet, what about markets that aren't as fussy as Japanese consumers? Well-made low-cost goods would be welcome in some countries, I'm sure.

  • -1

    Cos

    everything has PRISON written on it.

    Isn't it a legal requirement whenever the prisoners are not paid the normal rate ?

    what marketing genius thought that up??

    Lawmakers are probably that "genius". The topic is sensitive. By default, forced labor is not allowed by Human Rights rules. That would be double penalty, that could make them slaves, etc. Also that would be unfair competitions to normal businesses. You've probably heard criticism about jail work in China. And in the US when inmate were paid for disputable medical services (testing medicines, selling blood which led to huge scale HIV contamination...). So in democracies it's restricted, tolerated if it can be done in fair conditions. In some countries, inmates can only work for the benefits of charities and I think the Japanese system is close to that. Some buyers are happy to buy for that cause. But well, it's not for all types of goods.

    Zippo used to manufacture their lighters in prisons, but you sure as hell didn't see the words

    So they probably had to pay them the same salary as non-inmates. I have never heard about it for Japan, but in some countries, a part of the inmates have a normally paid professional activity outside. It's on their own request and arranged with the judge, like they are taken by bus to their usual workplace (like that Zippo factory) for 8 hours and then taken back when they finish their shift, that's not fun life. That can't be for the serial killers, but many people are jailed for some matters that are mostly financial, theft or material damages they caused. Many have also been condemned to pay compensation to victims, so the sooner they can pay back, the better. That should be the standard deal. These days, jails tend to transform people into wrecks, particularly youth. They enter as criminals, they get out either depressive and mentally broken, or introduced into higher spheres of criminality, like the kid jailed for stealing a cycle, in jail, he makes friend with thugs from gang or terro nets.

  • -1

    VicMOsaka

    A few years ago, we bought a dish sideboard which was made in prison. It was a beautifully made modern style unit and the price was good.

  • -1

    SimondB

    You can get some seriously good art coming out of prisons.

  • -1

    NeoJamal

    Unfortunately, the designs failed to keep up with current preferences, and particularly younger purchasers found the image of owning something made in a prison to be rather unappealing

    Why? it doesn't measure up to their self-assembled furniture that was manufactured by Chinese proles?

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