Product Designer


Prison Labor: A look inside Tires Prison in Lisbon, Portugal



For two days in the fall of 2015 I visited the Portuguese prison of Tires, in Lisbon, where I interviewed prison staff, administrative personnel and several inmates. The prison in Tires is known for being a place where the traditional Portuguese craft of Arraiolos rugs is taught and practiced. My aim was to analyse prison labour here, and how it relates to the effort of this particular community to preserve a traditional practice that is struggling to survive.



How do prison production facilities work? In order to find some answers, I visited Tires Prison in Lisbon, Portugal. This women’s prison is well known for its rug-making workshop, where selected prisoners continue the tradition of making “Arraiolos” rugs. I intended to find out more about this particular environment of production: How was work conducted inside a prison? What products did the inmates manufacture? What lessons could I, as a designer, take from the visit?
The visit was organized into a series of interviews with inmates and prison staff. Accompanied (always) by guards and the prison’s warden, I was able to walk around and talk to people for two days.

The beginning of prisons themselves can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization. The first record of imprisonment dates back to Babylon, around 1759 BC. With the birth of the State as an institution came the development of a formal legal code, the Hammurabi Code[1], that could be enforced by authority. In the Bible, Ezra recorded the words of the Persian King Artaxerxes II addressing the Babylon territory: “Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the King, let judgment be rigorously executed upon him, be it by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.”[2]

Seen from the beginning as a solution for the punishment of those who didn't respect the law, imprisonment has with time added social reintegration to its goals, in the form of education or work training. But social reintegration programs have, with time, raised many questions. Michel Foucault was particularly critical: “If one intervenes upon [the body] to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. […] From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights […] a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations,” he writes, in Discipline and Punishment.[3]
Nonetheless, the modern prison concept uses prison labour as a key to social reintegration of convicts: Labour guarantees inmates a steady income, as well as the ability to learn specific skills, which prisoners can later put to use in a career. The concept relies on the idea that an educated person will make better choices. In the words of Victor Hugo: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”[4]

But does it really work that way?

Today, America is the country with the highest number of prisoners in the world. In 2013, the number of American prisoners passed the two million mark. Having privatized the sector on a large scale, the country became a reference model for many other countries. In particular, the American model of supplying prison labour for corporations has been followed all over the world. In the US, at least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labour by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains big names, such as AT&T, Boeing, Compaq, Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Wireless, and many more. US prison products range from blue jeans to auto parts, electronics and furniture.

But there are downsides: For example, Honda has paid inmates $2 an hour for doing the same work an auto worker would get paid $20 to $30 an hour to do. Konica has used prisoners to repair copiers for less than 50 cents an hour. Toys R Us used prisoners to restock shelves, and Microsoft “employed” prisoners to pack and ship software. Clothing made in California and Oregon prisons competes so successfully with apparels made in Latin America and Asia that it is exported to other countries. For private companies, this kind of agreement is very lucrative: they pay minimum wage, have a steady population of workers and even get discounts on workers’ insurance as well as basic expenses like water and electricity.

On the 21th of November, 2015, some thirty people were at work at Tires Prison’s main sewing workshop. There, I spoke to some of the convicts about their workday behind bars, about the skills they had learned, and about how they are planning to use the skills they learned here in the future. One inmate told me: “Some companies want to hire members of the group, so we can continue working for them outside... I‘m 48 years old, school is out of the equation and as a cleaning lady I have no chance. Especially after my surgeries, I really cannot handle heavy lifting and bad positions for a longer time. So you see, just sewing! That's my only chance.” Another inmate joins in the conversation: “I knew nothing about sewing before a lady, that has already left, taught me. We learn a lot from each other. When I leave this place, I’ll start my own small company, me and my mother. I’ll take something good out of this experience at least.” All inmates present in the workshop seem to be engaged with the work in a highly motivated fashion. The environment resembles in all aspects a normal working factory running according to a normal working day. “They open the cell doors at 8:15 in the morning, we leave for breakfast until 9:30, then they open the workshop. I stay here the whole day until they close at 6, so we still have time to take a small shower and go back to our cells.”

At Tires Prison there are more than eight Portuguese companies currently employing inmates. Dispersed throughout the compound, these private companies’ production facilities include electronic assembly lines for a computation company, manufacturing for a window profile factory and several sewing workshops. Next to these facilities, there are the Arraiolos rug-making workshops, which, unlike the privately-commissioned works, have additional therapeutic and motivational purposes. Here, prisoners find some creative freedom and are free to explore the skills they have learned. For women who might have mental disturbances or who are on medication, there is also a small house with twenty-seven private cells, a garden and a sewing workshop. This, they call the P2.

In the main sewing workshop, the prisoners are producing objects for three different companies. To the left, there are people sewing life-vests for boats – which requires the most skill. In the middle section, others are creating handbags for the fashion brand Reklusa, and are knitting bow ties for a small accessories start-up present in supermarkets all over the country. To the right, in the learning section, the prisoners work on kitchen cloths. Everything is very structured and seems to work in a smooth and organized way.

Many inmates want to join the working crew, but not everyone is able to. The guard who is in charge hires people according to their sewing skills and overall behaviour: “We try to put people who go well together, sometimes I get it wrong, but I try. They are not here to like one another; they are here to work. If something happens they lose their job immediately,” said Violeta Neves. As I walked along the prison halls during break time, many women approached the guard asking for a job, and she responded to everyone “We’ll see” or “I'm looking at your case”. A woman in her 60s, the guard Neves comes across as a tough character at first: she’s tall and strong, everyone respects her inside, and even the warden addresses her with a special deference. She’s been working at the prison for decades and remembers the times when this prison was run by nuns. These nuns were excellent teachers of the craft of rug making through the early 1980s. Back then, the Arraiolos rug craft was the main activity here. “They were very talented, and this knowledge is still within these walls.”

Arraiolos rugs are a traditional Portuguese craft that dates back to the end of the 16th century. Originating in the region of Alentejo, in a town called Arraiolos, these rugs are characterized by dense decorative motifs in different styles. These designs boast unique aesthetics, reflective of their individual histories. The ancient Arabic presence in this part of the world, as well as an Asian influence, have both played an important role in the development of this expressive style. Made with a special sewing technique, using thick wool thread on a tow canvas, the rugs are heavily textured and multi-coloured.
However, the craft has been dying out with time. Because it takes a long time to produce them, the rugs have become very expensive, which makes them less competitive in the market. “You know, now with the invasion of China, no one buys them,” says Neves.

Tires Prison is one of the few places where this particular rug-making tradition still exists, even though the nuns responsible for establishing the practice of rug-making in this prison left more than thirty years ago. The prison staff still believes in keeping this craft alive: As guard Violeta says, “This is what I love most. I know everything and every little detail about this craft.” Still, everyone is aware of how difficult it is becoming. The number of orders has been dropping every year, so the prison has been thinking of new ways to sell the traditional rugs. “Today, we also work even if we have no orders, which means we just do it, and then we see if we can sell them.”
All products are displayed in a showroom within the prison compound – a space that people can visit. Once a nice store, the space is now just a big room filled with rugs of all colours and sizes, and no customers in sight. “You know, with the crisis, everything is going super slow, we are selling very small amounts. In the old days this was amazing, we couldn’t even fulfill the demands. About fifteen years ago, it was madness, I really mean madness! Now we are just accumulating stock,” adds Violeta.

The craft of Arraiolos seems to be slowly disappearing. Could this be a problem of communication and diffusion? When asked about creating a website to help the sales of the rugs, the guard Violeta said: “That’s not so easy, everything here is very limited. And you know, the country is a bit in a standby.

I take some time to talk with an inmate serving a sentence of fifteen years. Her name is Cesalina. A small woman with long curly hair, Cesalina wears a small bracelet with a cushion to pin sewing needles and pins on her arm. Smiling all the time, she seems excited about my visit and is clearly very proud of showing me the space she and the other inmates have created for themselves. She tells me what she’s missing the most in order to do her job effectively: “My computer! Looking for stuff, seeing new trends... With a computer I could just go and find everything I wanted, and search exactly for the things I wanted. I just want to see what’s being done out there. In the last four and a half years that I am in here, things have changed a lot outside, I can feel it.”

I realize how this lack of knowledge is affecting the objects created in this space.” Creativity is fuelled by making and imagining. In this context of isolation, there is almost no access to research. “They bring some magazines sometimes, but it’s so rare. Could you bring some the next time you come?” Cesalina asks me.

As I walk through the corridors and living spaces, every pillar is decorated with vases made out of palm fibre, hung by a wire and with fresh plants coming out. “How did you do them?” I ask a woman in her 40s with a bright energetic face. She tells me: “You know about the palm tree scarab? The scarab is killing all the trees, so we used the fibres of the dead trees to make these kind of vases.” Creative solutions can be spotted everywhere inside, always with a special character that is reflective of the environment. The vases look as if they don't belong in this cold space of metal doors, white tile floors and low ceilings—but at the same time, it seems they couldn’t be created anywhere else.
In the kitchen space of P2, I spot a table with several cakes done in knitting with incredible detail, displayed on a plate as if ready to serve. Many women are looking at me while I go around. I ask the group, ‘who made the cakes?’ “It was Cesalina” one says. Cesalina replies, “What do you want me to do? There is nothing to do here, and at least these cakes don ́t make my diabetes worse.” Everyone laughs.  

Boredom and isolation are two of the main forces driving the uniqueness of the objects created here. These objects are products of the environment – and, in themselves, they show the reality of this place. Here in prison, time is endless but means are scarce. Perhaps this specific atmosphere – which produces these odd and intriguing results – could be turned to even more creative, and thus both therapeutically and financially more remunerative, results? After my visit, it seems to me that the question is at least worth asking.



[1] “Prisons and Imprisonment in the Ancient World: Punishments used to maintain public order”, Hammurabi Code, Ancient, 25.10.2015, <> (6.7.2016); Charles F. Horne, “Ancient History Sourcebook: Code of Hammurabi”, Fordham University, <> (6.7.2016)

[2] The Bible – book of Ezra 7:26

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, Panthon Books (New York, 1997), p. 11

[4] Sir John Lubbock, The Use of Life, Macmillan and Co. (New York, 1895), p. 97