This Fashion Collection Is Produced Entirely by Incarcerated Women

The Peruvian inmates earn roughly three times the nation’s minimum wage.
(Photo: Courtesy Carcel)
Nov 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Edith Sanchez Huaitara, a 37-year-old woman from Huancavelica, Peru, longs to open her own business. She makes hand-knitted clothing and hopes to one day be successful enough that her parents never have to worry about money again. Sanchez Huaitara is serving time in prison, but thanks to one innovative clothing company, she can start saving toward her dream now.

Sanchez Huaitara is one of 10 women employed by Carcel, a Danish fashion label that hires incarcerated women in Cusco, Peru, to produce its clothing. On Oct. 25, the company launched a campaign on Kickstarter seeking roughly $21,000 to get production off the ground. It was fully funded in a single day.

Founder and CEO Veronica D’Souza chose to launch the company in Peru because of its high level of poverty, its tradition of knitting, and access to alpaca wool, a high-quality material. The knitwear line is made from 100 percent, chemical-free alpaca wool. The alpacas are shorn just once a year and spend the rest of their days freely roaming on Peruvian farms.

The women employed by Carcel work on hand-knitting machines to produce T-shirts, sweaters, and ribbed pants, each of which contain a tag with the name of the woman who made the item. The women are paid $15 for every item they hand-knit and average two to three items per day. Women working full-time have the potential to earn triple the nation’s minimum wage.

(Photo: Courtesy Carcel)

D’Souza hopes her business model can help break the cycle of poverty by allowing the women to save money and have a marketable skill on release. Many of the women turned to crime to financially support their families.

“Many are single mothers, the provider of the family and in prison because of desperate decisions,” D’Souza wrote in an email to TakePart.

Carcel’s prison employees are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Peru is one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine, and as production has increased over the past several years, so too has the government’s crackdown on those who transport the drugs. The number of women incarcerated in Peru has more than doubled in the past 15 years, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Roughly 4,600 women are serving prison sentences, while an additional 38,000 are incarcerated while awaiting trial.

(Photo: Courtesy Carcel)

“It is often the young, the beautiful, and the pregnant who have been spotted by the drug-cartels to smuggle narcotics because this is the segment that is the most likely to get through customs,” D’Souza wrote. She met one young woman who turned to drug smuggling to pay off her school debt. One 19-year-old was tricked into smuggling drugs while traveling with her boyfriend. Another woman got involved in drug trafficking to support her husband and three daughters. The devastation of imprisonment is compounded for these women, whose families rely on them for financial support.

By working for Carcel, the women can send the money they earn home to their families and support themselves in prison. They can create bank accounts or receive their payments in cash. Aside from food, all items in Peru’s prison system cost money, so these funds allow women to purchase hygiene items such as sanitary pads and soap.

Along with providing the women with financial support, D’Souza feels that having a job helps them emotionally.

“It is extremely important for your mental health to stay occupied while doing time—to have a sense of purpose and something to do,” D’Souza wrote. “Making the women be able to save up and providing them with jobs where they know they can make a decent salary will hopefully have a positive influence on their daily lives.”