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Q: How did it all start?
A: Our founder, Veronica D’Souza, came up with the idea after visiting a women’s prison in Nairobi. The women told her that the main reason for their imprisonment was poverty. Most of them were there for committing non-violent crimes because they wanted to provide for their children. At the same time, they were making small crafts like knitting sweaters and teddy-bears. Without access to good materials, skills-training or a market on the outside, they did not get to sell their products. When they left prison, they were further marginalized and impoverished, while many of their children had been left to grow up without a provider, continuing the poverty cycle.
Veronica started researching and discovered that this is the case for women in prison all over the world. Very few organizations talk about this issue, and there is generally very little awareness around this topic. Veronica decided to create a company that would constructively put to use the time spent in prison, rendering it as an opportunity to gain new skills and fair wages so that incarcerated women could provide for themselves, for their families and save up for when they were released. Veronica paired up with designer Louise Van Hauen, and together they started the first production facility inside the women’s prison in Cusco, Peru.
Q: How do you select your materials?
A: The main aspects that define our material choices are quality, sustainability, and durability. We work with high-quality silk, lyocell, and alpaca wool, as these are timeless in style and long-lasting. We make sure to only use the finest natural fibers that are native to the regions in which we manufacture, and to test them for quality assurance to make sure that the quality of our final products is durable.
Q: How sustainable is alpaca wool?
A: Alpaca wool is a high-quality material that stands the test of time. We make sure not to blend materials, so all our alpaca wool products are 100% monofibre, and contain the various properties specific to this material: lightweight, thermo-regulating, and self-cleansing. Not only do alpacas have a lighter footprint than sheep, but they also have a very fine and light fleece that resists harsh climates. This explains the durability and versatility of alpaca wool. The alpacas are not harmed when shorn once a year. Actually, the fleece is removed prior to the summer months, which helps to avoid heat stress for the animals.
Q: What impact do you have on women in prison?
A: Most people who are in prison today barely make any money, and they and their families are left without an income for many years, spiraling further into the poverty that got them there in the first place. We want to help change that. We offer training for women in prison to learn new skills, as well as job opportunities with salaries that match market rates, so they can sustain themselves and send money home for their families, creating a better life. We run high production facilities within prisons and work with a dedicated team. Essentially, we work with women wishing to contribute and participate to have an activity despite their imprisonment. This fosters self-worth, integrity, and dignity.
Q: How do you know that you are paying the female prisoners a fair wage?
A: In order to ensure a fair wage for our employees we have conducted thorough research, consulted international organizations such as the ILO and the UN, as well as, talked to local organizations and our employees themselves. Our key aim is to ensure that our salaries are equal to local market rates outside of prison. We, therefore, look at living wages as a minimum, to make sure that we offer enough to cover living costs and more. If general changes apply to the labor market we are ready to adjust our wages accordingly. Our wages explained. Read more about wages here.
Q: Why pay living wages of the countries you work in? Why not Danish living wages?
A: A living wage is measured in relation to the cost of living within a country, which is why the general salary in Denmark is higher than in Thailand or Peru. We pay wages based on the local markets of the countries in which our employees work. Our fair wages cover living costs and take into account each employee’s experience and expertise. It is also important that the wages do not interfere with local businesses outside of prison. Applying Danish living wages within Thailand or Peru would disturb local competition. To ensure a long-term and sustainable business model for everyone involved, we need to respect local market rates, while being socially responsible, and provide fair wages.
Q: Are the women you employ forced into labor?
A: It is crucial to us that the women we employ choose to work for us voluntarily. It is widely recognized amongst the international community and labor organizations that access to good jobs and skill development in prison are driving factors to improving mental health and to securing reintegration into society.
To make sure that working conditions are up to standards, we are consistently consulting experts from organizations such as the ILO Convention Against Forced Labor and The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Q: What is the cost breakdown of your final sales prices?
A: We believe that transparency is the way forward in our industry which is why we have dedicated a page about our business model on our website, in which we explain our price structure. Here, we explain all our costs throughout our supply chain. In order to set a product price, our first step is to set wages based on market rates in the countries of production. We also outline the costs that go into the making of the product, from materials to production. Then, we add a mark-up between 2.6 and 4.78, depending on whether the product is sold online or through retail. We believe in building an effective value chain with little stock, which is better for the environment, while also ensuring long-term business. We have consciously developed our business model to make a profit in order to secure the sustainability of our production for the benefit of all parties involved and to build a competitive business.
Q: How are the prisons involved in your business activities?
A: We are cooperating with the prison authorities in order to secure access and coordinate practical issues. On the inside, we run our production autonomously. We have built our own facilities inside the prisons that we operate in so that we can ensure that there is no overtime work, that our employees get fair wages, and that time is dedicated to the development of new skills. Our production managers are on site every day to manage our production. We only work in prisons in which we are able to oversee that fair and voluntary employment is possible. It is crucial for us to contribute to a responsible work culture, where the women feel safe to speak out, make mistakes and learn.
Q: Why Peru and Thailand?
A: There are two main considerations behind our choice of countries to operate in. We aim for social impact as well as high-quality products. We started up in Peru, as it is home to high-quality wool from free-roaming alpacas and some of the world’s most skilled knitters. In Thailand, there is a rich tradition and expertise in weaving beautiful silk.
In both of these countries, poverty is the main reason why women are incarcerated. Drug-trafficking, prostitution, and theft are some of the main criminal offenses. By providing job training, experience, and a living wage to break the spiral of poverty, we believe we can have a high social impact in both Peru and Thailand through products of high quality.
Q: Which country is next?
A: There are many countries all over the world where there is a high need for opportunities for women in prison. We cannot say where our next production site will be, but we are really excited about the fact that prisons from across the world have started to reach out to us. The most important thing for us is that we are able to have an impact on our employees through quality products.
Q: What is the reason to work with women inside prisons, rather than outside?
A: There is a need for fair wages and dignified jobs both before, during and after prison. Our purpose is to create opportunities for women inside prisons, who are often forgotten and marginalized, and who usually do not have many opportunities to get out of their poverty, which often got them in prison in the first place. We believe that providing useful training and skills and creating jobs with fair wages within prisons is a way to empower these women and to give them better opportunities for their futures. Most of the women we work with are mothers, who now have a chance to provide for their children from the inside.
Solving global poverty needs a global and cross-entity effort, and cannot be done by one company alone. But we can make a humble effort to create opportunities where there is close to no other alternatives.
Q: What happens when the women get out of prison?
A: Our aim is to create opportunities for women in prison that can enable them to make a better future for themselves and their families, also after prison. We believe that skills training, economic empowerment, having a CV and interacting in a social work setting are pivotal for this. Most of our employees have longer sentences and when they get out, they dream of being with their children. For those who have family in the area, we can consider employing them after release. For those who come from afar, they have the ability to save up to buy machines and have their own micro-enterprises. We are also happy to recommend them to companies in their region. To us, it is key that we create an opportunity for them to pursue their own dreams for their futures, whether it be in knitting, sewing or entrepreneurship.
Esther: “I have learned how to knit crew-knit sweaters on a domestic sewing machine. Also, today I dedicated myself to the tags and packaging. What I like the best is quality control….First, to provide for my three loves, my children. Thanks to the company, CARCEL, I am saving to invest in creating my own business, a grocery store. I will work honestly in order to not be separated from my children again.“
Flor Rosa: “Well, I have mastered the Coppo Gauge 10 machine, which I didn’t know before. Now I am a professional in knitting rib, polo sleeves, short sleeves, long sleeves, and rib dresses. What I have learned helps me a lot with my work for myself and my family. I will continue working in the company until I leave. CARCEL has helped me and my son a lot economically! I can take care of myself with the work I do for CARCEL.”
Q: Are you reliant on women committing crimes in order to make your business work?
Studies show that poverty-related crime has an inter-generational effect on the prisoners’ children and that the cycle is difficult to break. There are currently not many opportunities for women while incarcerated. At Carcel, we aim to address this and make sure that there are better opportunities within prisons for fair wages and education. We feel that there is a strong need here and prioritize creating social impact within women’s prisons. We hope for the day in which poverty-related crimes will not lead to long imprisonments, and if we ever get there we will look elsewhere to employ people who need fair jobs.
Q: Do you know these women and their stories?
A: Yes, we know each and every member of our team as well as their stories and how they ended up in prison. We make sure to be on site as often as we can, to reinforce human contact and alignment.
Q: Are the rights of the workers in prison equal to those on the outside?
A: We aim to create fair employment rights for women in prison that are equal to those outside. Due to other prison activities taking place, work hours are restricted to a maximum of 30 hours per week, and our employees are entitled to days off as well as sick days. We also stop production for holidays, visits and prison events. We are aware of the complexity of this matter and are trying to navigate in order to do our best to create a good work environment within the boundaries of incarceration. We are also constantly developing our Code of Conduct, and looking to see how we can improve our model.
Q: Did you ever think about working in prisons in Denmark or places closer to home?
A: It has been important for us to empower women with a severe lack of social and financial security, and where few actors are working to engage and support these vulnerable groups. Where we work, there are no social security networks. We are considering looking into working in Europe, as long as we can create a model to ensure fair wages and that the employment is voluntary, and we believe that there is a possibility for creating real impact through high-quality products with market demand.
Q: Is Carcel not just another company from the West that uses cheap labor?
A: For us, this is not about the West and the rest. It has been important for us to empower women with a severe lack of social and financial security, and where few actors are working to engage and support these vulnerable groups. There is more of a need for action in the countries in which we work. We want to make a concrete contribution to changing people’s lives for the better, even on a small scale, in countries where there is a severe lack of opportunities for women in prison.
Q: Why do you use women in prison in your communication?
A: Our work has a central focus on the women we work with. We are very much aware of the issues that need solving. Working on creating an impact, being present and having access means that we have an opportunity to use our platform as a channel to share our employees’ stories, our processes and our knowledge. We never use interviews, photos or videos without the consent of our team. So far, each one of them is excited about getting to show how they work and who they are to fight stigma against women with a criminal record.