(This post contains spoilers about “Orange is the New Black” Season 3.)
A lot of Season 3 of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” revolves around underwear.
The plot line starts at the end of the fifth episode, after the private prison company that takes over Litchfield announces a “special” new job for 40 inmates: Sewing underwear for a lingerie company called Whispers, which you might assume is a stand-in for the similarly-titled Victoria’s Secret.
Well, turns out you can assume correctly: Surprisingly, the story line isn’t far from reality. In 1995, the National Institute of Justice released a study that confirmed garment manufacturer Third Generation contracted sewing work in the early ’90s to a prison through a deal with South Carolina Correctional Industries. Victoria’s Secret, along with other companies, wound up buying the apparel through Third Generation — that were actually made by inmates at the Leath Correctional Facility in Greenwood.
“Third Generation employed 35 inmates who sewed a variety of leisure wear garments and lingerie that were purchased by J.C. Penney, Victoria’s Secret and other retail apparel firms,” the study said, adding that the prison plant produced approximately $1.5 million worth of clothing.
The Third Generation president explained why they turned to inmates to sew clothing: “We could not find enough qualified industrial sewers in rural South Carolina, and the prison solved a real problem for us in that respect,” he said.
Anyway, Victoria’s Secret swiftly ended that practice — Third Generation ended its contract with the prison by the mid-1990s. No word on how much money the inmates made, but on “Orange is the New Black,” the inmates make $1 per hour, a big pay raise: Most prison jobs at Litchfield pay closer to 10 cents an hour.
Either way, it’s tough for the inmates on “Orange is the New Black” to wrap their minds around the difference between price and labor: In one scene, looking at the catalog, Alex is incredulous that the lingerie costs $90.
“I know, right? And I get 45 cents to make them,” Piper says. “It’s basically slave labor.”
Cindy and Janae pipe up that she has no business comparing it to slavery. “Technically, it’s more like indentured servitude,” Cindy points out. “We’re making a dollar an hour. That’s like 10 times what we got before,” Janae adds.
“But the other jobs are about prison upkeep,” Piper points out. “The Whispers people are profiting from us.”
Janae pauses. “I’m okay with that,” she says.
“Me too,” Cindy agrees.
Later, the underwear factory (or the “panty mill,” as the inmates call it) comes in handy when Piper has a brilliant, albeit disturbing, business idea to sell used underwear worn by inmates to fetishists. Obviously, that’s not the way it worked out in real life — the National Institute of Justice study adds that Third Generation tried to help with the prisoner’s long-term plan.
“These women were good workers, they took pride in the products they made, and I would like to hire 80 percent of them after they get out of prison in my other two plants,” Third Generation President Merv Epstein said; the study confirms at least “several” were hired by the company after they were released.