50_John Borchert

Break the Chains

“Prisoners learn early that the way to survive on the inside is to keep a low profile and follow orders. Sadly, that’s the lesson that workers in most businesses learn. I’m proud of what I do. I work in a prison, and I’m more fulfilled than ever.”


John Borchert
General manager, the Array Corp./Prison Blues Clothing Line
Pendleton, Oregon


What needed an overhaul?
Prison Blues is a line of clothing made by inmates. There was a stigma that inmate-produced products would inherently be low quality. When general manager John Borchert began, many bought into this myth, including the factory workers. Product quality was low. Workers were only rewarded for speed. Seconds, returns, and destroyed product were twice the industry standard, making placements in retail outlets increasingly difficult. Without a radical shift in product quality, sales would continue to dwindle. Simultaneously, the company was battling mixed public perceptions. One camp thought inmate workers didn’t deserve jobs while others believed inmate’s rights were being violated.

What was the single biggest obstacle?
Attitudes about product quality had to change. Among the inmates, Borchert found that there was tremendous ignorance at the line level about what constituted quality in a garment. There were no rewards for quality production. Some basic, quality management techniques had to be implemented which emphasized teams over individuals. Similarly, public attitudes needed an overhaul. People didn’t realize that Prison Blues provides inmates with valuable work skills. Wages earned in this program help pay for incarceration costs, taxes, and victim restitution. Inmates also amass a savings. This combination enhances the likelihood that they will return to the outside as productive members of society.

How did you overcome it?
Borchert started with education about quality that translated into checklists and written specifications. He realized his workers had the same fears and needs as any other work force. With one major difference: they were an especially untrusting lot. So Borchert worked extra hard to be consistent. He implemented a tangible, team-based reward system that paid production lines for meeting or beating industry standards for defects. Prisoners learn early that the way to survive on the inside is to keep a low profile and follow orders. (Sadly it’s the lesson workers learn in most businesses.) Empowering his workers to take on more responsibility went a long way toward improving their work ethic. Simultaneously, he launched a public relations campaign internally–as well as externally–about the crucial role meaningful work plays in rehabilitation.

How have you seen results?
The results have been astounding. For the past six months all production lines have performed at less than one percent total defects, including all returns from customers. The product is no longer embarrassing to present to retail buyers. Borchert has defied the odds and earned the trust and respect of the inmates. Changing public perception has proven slightly more difficult, although he’s starting to make progress there, too. But reconviction rates in Oregon are approximately half of the national average. That figure speaks for itself. As for Borchert, he is proud of the work that he does. Sure he works in a prison, but he’s more fulfilled there than any other workplace prior.