"Haeftling", German for "captive", is the new label for a host of apparel and accessories being manufactured by inmates in Germany's Tegel prison, and lapped up by an enthusiastic public.

A striped shirt, which inmate Matthias Meyenberg is sewing in a workroom behind bars, was the type once worn only by fellow inmates, but now the general public is snapping them up online.

"Lots of my friends on the outside would kill for one of these shirts," said the 38-year old, who is serving a three-year sentence for drug dealing. "The products are funny and a bit daring."

Meyenberg is sealed off from the fashion victims behind dozens of heavy locked grey doors, a 1.3km-long high rise wall with watch towers, and large stretches of barbed wire.

"Lots of my friends on the outside would kill for one of these shirts"

Matthias Meyenberg,
Convicted drug dealer

"There aren't many jobs in here and I'd rather be sewing than staring at the wall of my cell," said Meyenberg, sitting at a row of sewing machines with fellow inmates, as two prison guards look on.

Only about 60% of the inmates in the north Berlin jail have jobs, said jail manager Ulrich Fehlau, who heads the project. He hopes about 50 new jobs can be created for Tegel's 1650 prisoners if the fashion sales go well. 
 
Overwhelming demand

The inmates have made their own clothes since 1898, also selling a few items to the public from a prison shop. Their "jailwear" took off after an advertising expert learned of the shop from a newspaper ad, sensing a trend.

Stephan Bohle from Berlin marketing agency Herr Ledesi set up a Website (www.haeftling.de), from which fashion-conscious shoppers can buy authentic blue prison jackets, striped blue and white shirts, trendy sneakers and black leather bags.

"It is a win-win situation - prisoners have work, customers have good clothes, taxpayers are relieved because less money has to go into the jail," Bohle said.

About 1500 items, priced between 25 and 100 euros ($27 and $109), were ordered in the first week of the branding campaign, overloading expectations for goods which had been selling at the rate of about two to three items per week.

"Due to the enormous popularity of the Haeftling products, we are currently not able to process any new orders," the website advises buyers.

The extra money from sales will be significant, Fehlau says. Some revenue has to be handed to the state of Berlin. The rest goes to the institution.

"We can think about buying things that we only dreamed of five years ago. Computers for the schools maybe, books, a pool table or new sports equipment," Fehlau said, adding that Bohle's agency received no cash from the revenues.

Special treats

Inmates working on the label like Meyenberg can get a small bonus to the daily wage of between seven and 12 euros.

"We are currently not able to process any new orders"

Haeftling website

"Fifty extra euros per month make a big difference. I can buy special treats like sweets, tobacco and coffee," said Meyenberg, rolling a cigarette.

Convicted murderer Christoph Kapturzak was cutting up leather for a handbag at a wooden table under the barred windows. He says he prefers making the bags rather than producing items like covers for cars as he did before.

"Anyone could be buying this bag. I just hope it's not going to be a drug dealer," said the 45-year-old with a hearty laugh. He has another 10 years to serve.

"But I don't know whether one should be proud of carrying around a bag that has been made by a prisoner," he said. "It is a bit odd."

Frank Geppert, a social worker with a volunteer group in Berlin looking after criminals, said he welcomed the project, saying more firms should get involved in supporting prison work.

"It's good that prisoners can earn their own money, allowing them to maybe pay off some debt. But this is just one attempt. The basic problem of finding work for prisoners is not solved."

Fehlau said he did not understand concerns that the jail's fashion label seemed macabre. Pointing to a red brick building with small barred windows opposite the work room, he said:

"We are getting new windows for that building. Some of our prisoners in the blacksmith's shop will have to make new bars for their own cells. That's what I'm calling macabre."