Clink Couture

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

ARMANIS THEY'RE NOT, BIT OVER THE LAST two years the blue jeans manufactured at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute have become chic among outsiders who don't want to be prisoners to sartorial convention. Aimed at men 16 to 25—not doing 16-to-25—the Prison Blues line is the most successful of four being marketed by the Oregon State Department of Corrections from its plant in the prison at Pendleton, Ore. (The other three are Bungees shorts, Riggers work jeans and Accomplice jeans for teenage girls.) Brad Haga, the state employee in charge of marketing the line, says the jailhouse jeans of sturdy black and blue denim—sold with the slogan "Made on the inside to be worn on the outside"—deliver a "real simple statement: These jeans are made by some pretty bad guys."

After racking up nearly $I million in sales in the Northwest—the G.I. Joe's chain alone has sold 11,000 pairs of $20 Prison Blues in the past 18 months—the prison recently shipped 4,000 pairs, each bearing a bright orange INMATE stamp down the left leg, to Japan. (Jeans sold in the U.S. don't carry the stamp.) Explains Prison Blues exporter Tom Frost: "The Japanese are fascinated with the dangerous mystique of America."

Forty-three inmates at the medium-security facility (200 are on the waiting list for jobs there) manufacture the jeans, T-shirts and other items for considerably higher pay than inmates earn for other prison work: $4.75 to $6 an hour, with 80 percent deducted for such things as drug and alcohol counseling, family support, taxes and victim's restitution. Says sex offender Hank Barth, 39: "If you do this job for a couple years, you're going to leave with enough money to get a nice little apartment and some used furniture."

Some of the prisoners have a hard time fathoming the perverse appeal of their products. Says Robert Padgett, 27, serving 34½ years for kidnapping, attempted rape and robbery: "I can't understand why anybody on the outside would want to wear a pair of jeans that have INMATE stamped on them. Being in prison is not really something to brag about."

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