the scandanavian brand made by female prisoners in peru

Carcel is a sustainable brand designed in Copenhagen and made by incarcerated women. Founder Veronica D'Souza explains how the empowering initiative helps break the cycle of poverty that leads to high female incarceration rates.

by Hannah Ongley
14 November 2016, 8:00pm

If you were on Instagram on April 24, you probably remember a few people posting selfies while wearing their clothes inside-out. Fashion Revolution Day was established following the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,134 people in 2013, and the #whomademyclothes hashtag is just one of its initiatives calling for accountability in clothing construction. 

Anyone who happens to be wearing Carcel next time the day rolls around will have a pretty cool explanation for anyone who jokes about getting dressed in the dark. The sustainable brand is made by female prisoners in Cusco, Peru, who knit high-quality baby alpaca wool according to patterns made by a fashion team based in Denmark. Each garment has the name of the woman who made it sewn on the inside. She also gets a decent living wage, a little dignity, and the chance to break the cycle of poverty and drug trafficking that leads to devastatingly high female incarceration rates all over the world. Each woman is paid $15 for each garment she makes, and makes on average 2.5 garments per day, earning her approximately three times the minimum wage in Peru. Of the total amount Carcel then sells the final product for, 1/3 goes to social impact investment (education, new equipment, field work), 1/3 to unit production costs (materials, salaries, transportation), and 1/3 to business development (design, marketing, operations). 

Founder Veronica D'Souza came up with the idea for Carcel after visiting a women's prison in Kenya, when she was launching her other fantastic company Ruby Cup, which keeps African girls in school through a buy-one-give-one system. Peru is just the beginning for Carcel — after meeting its funding goal on Kickstarter in just one day, the brand hopes to expand into India, working with organic silks. Other stretch goals include expanding the Peruvian knitwear collection with pieces including a unisex blouse. We talked to Veronica about visiting prisons for the first time, breaking the cycle, and creating quality Denmark designs from jails in the Peruvian Andes.

How did you end up visiting a prison work program in Kenya?
I was working in Kenya to start another company. I was curious about why women were in prisons in Africa, basically. I called a women's prison and asked them if I could visit, and I went. I saw that they were sewing and knitting every day but they didn't have any market where they could sell their products. It was also very clear that these were women from the village. Poverty was the main reason they were there. Then I started looking into which countries you have this intersection between some of the highest quality materials in the world and high rates of female incarceration due to poverty. Peru has fantastic alpaca wool and high rates of female incarceration due to drug trafficking. So we started out with Peru.

What was that experience like for you visiting prisons for the first time in Peru? How similar was it to the situation in Kenya?
I went to Peru for the first time in my life in April, and visited women's prisons all over the country. The situation was more or less the same as in Kenya, because the women were already sitting and knitting every day for six to eight hours, but they couldn't really sell their product. Most of them knew alpaca and worked with it through generations. We decided to start in Cusco women's prisons, high up in the Andes, because that's where the alpaca comes from, and many of the women already have some kind of experience working with it.

Can you explain a little about the poverty cycle and how it relates to drug trafficking and high female incarceration rates?
It was very striking that the drug trafficking was definitely the main cause [of incarceration]. About 60% of the women who are incarcerated are there for being drug mules. People go to the villages and pick the poor, young, beautiful, and pregnant girls because they can more easily get through customs. They get sentences of about 10 to 15 years for [trafficking] not many grams of cocaine. Most of them have children. It's a cycle of poverty. But also the prison systems are very encouraging for giving these people opportunities. They would love to give them better jobs but they need help from the private sector. So they were very open to creating a partnership.

You mention on the Kickstarter that you're planning to expand into India next. What can we expect from that?
One of the things that's quite crucial when creating these collections is that we go where there are amazing, natural, raw materials. It's very important for us to be respectful of that material, and what we can do with it that makes sense. That's why we started making these kinds of casual, elegant silhouettes in softer construction cuts that combine simplicity and boldness. For the next project we're looking at silks. These really high-quality materials applied in a casual manner that can be dressed up and down. We're not working with the most professional factories in the world. We're working inside women's prisons. But simple and strong fits look really beautiful.

I love that each woman sews her name onto the inside of the garment. What does this mean to them?
They're very proud to something meaningful, and they're very excited about the fact that international people want to buy clothes that they're making. Just the fact that we even care about them is a big deal. There's a lot of pride and dignity in that. On the other hand, some of them have relatives that don't know they're in prison. So for some of them we won't be using their full names. Most of them have three or four names. They might just use the first two names. It's important for them to have identity but it's also important for them to protect that identity sometimes.

*Ed. Note: This article was amended on 12/1/16 to include more detail on Carcel's fair wage practices. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Carcel

veronica d'souza