ISU student designs uniforms for Iowa prisoners


Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Alex Quick, junior in merchandising, apparel and design, adjusts the new uniform on a model for the offenders at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. Quick designed the uniforms herself.

Michaela Ramm

Even inmates have to be stylish, especially if everyone they live with has the same outfit.

One ISU student had the opportunity to work with inmates in one prison to design uniforms for female prisoners in Iowa.

Alex Quick, junior in apparel, merchandising and design, was able to test her skills during the summer at Iowa’s only female correction facility by designing and constructing prison uniforms.

Quick worked out of Iowa Prison Industries, a factory connected to the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa.

Iowa Prison Industries is an offset of the Iowa Department of Corrections and offers offenders work experience in a factory setting for their future release. The factory produces products in upholstery, chemicals, furniture and sewing.

“When they’re released, which more than 90 percent are, they do much better when they have jobs and they don’t come back to prison as often,” said Dan Clark, director of Iowa Prison Industries. “That’s our ultimate goal: Keep people out of prison.”

Officials at Iowa Prison Industries previously purchased garments from the least expensive producer. Typically, the product came from companies in Asia.

Clark said after facing issues with the garments, prison officials looked for a solution from Iowa State’s apparel, merchandising and design students.

Quick was this year’s third intern with Iowa Prison Industries. The company hires students as interns to work in the sewing plant at the Mitchellville facility.

“We make garments for offenders and other clients,” Clark said of the sewing factory. “We struggle to find anyone in the state of Iowa who had any textile expertise. So finally someone pointed to the ISU program.”

Quick’s major project was addressing the facility’s problem with the prisoner uniforms.

She was tasked with creating the navy blue uniforms that 650 offenders wear during their work shifts or visitation hours.

Described as scrubs, the uniforms look very similar to the garments medical personnel wear on a daily basis in hospitals and other medical facilities.

Clark said the project was meant to accomplish three specific goals. It had to be approved by the institution in terms of security and was something the offenders preferred, it had to be approved for comfort, and finally, it had to be something that was easy and efficient to manufacture.

Designing the uniforms offered a unique challenge to Quick, who had to meet the needs and wants of both the security personnel and the offenders at the prison.

“All I did was talk to the safety people and asked, ‘What can’t they have?’” Quick said. “And I went to the inmates and asked, ‘What do you want?’ I had to get a happy medium between the two.”

The happy medium included pockets for the inmates that fit their needs but could not conceal contraband, a place to hang ID badges, overall durability and comfort. The uniforms were also made to last and could withstand daily washing as well as everyday wear and tear.

In order to create these scrubs, Quick said she collaborated with a group of about four offenders.

“They really listened to the folks that wear them, which is a really unique opportunity for [the offenders] to pick what they and everyone else is going to wear,” Clark said. “They had lots of input, let’s just say.”

Betty Nall, 57, is an offender in Iowa Correctional Institution for Women who works in the sewing plant at Iowa Prison Industries and helped Quick with her project during her summer internship.

“She was a knowledgeable person and easy to work with,” Nall said. “I enjoyed working with [Quick].”

Nall said she helped Quick redesign the neck and the sleeves of the garment and also made the tops longer than the current uniforms.

Quick said she often went to the offenders for feedback and questions because they knew their needs as manufacturers as well as consumers.

“They’ve been sitting at the sewing machine, some of them for five years,” Quick said. “They know it better than me.”

After a completed design for scrubs was finished, it was presented to a group of prison officials, including Iowa Correctional Institution for Women’s warden. 

Nall worked with five other offenders and Quick to create a presentation for the prison officials on the final product. There, Nall said, they explained the scrubs’ design and its process for mass production.

“[The officials] liked it,” Nall said of the finished product. “They were all on board for it and were eager to see how it all goes over.”

Nall said she learned a lot from Quick during her short stay at the facility, including patterns, layout and design.

Quick said the inmates she worked with were eager to learn, and she enjoyed the opportunity to teach them. During her internship, she formed good relationships with the inmates and had several meaningful interactions.

One specific interaction, however, stayed with her. Quick said during her time there, she worked with an offender who was a “lifer,” someone with a life sentence.

“She’s so eager to learn, but she’s a lifer,” Quick said. “It’s just crazy that someone who may have no hope of ever getting out still wants to learn so much.”

Quick said she can’t take credit for everything she accomplished at her internship because the offenders helped her with a lot of the work.

She said people expressed concerns for her before she began her internship, but they were unfounded.

“They’re really good,” Quick said. “Everyone thinks the worst of them, but they were awesome. They did bad things, but they got caught for it, and that’s what’s important.”

Currently, prototypes of the scrubs are going through a series of durability and wear tests. When those are completed, Iowa Prison Industries will begin manufacturing within the next 30 to 60 days. These products will eventually be sold to outside government entities.

Quick said Iowa Prison Industries’s biggest customers are other prisons, and it will likely produce uniforms for them. She also said officials were hopeful they would be able to manufacture the scrubs for medical facilities, since the design is very similar and would only need a few changes.

Iowa Prison Industries is also working to install new machines, including an elastic machine to better mass-produce the product. Quick said by doing so prisoners will also gain more experience creating other products that vary from diapers to towels and jeans.

Quick was able to have her unusual design and mass textile production experience in a prison thanks to the partnership Iowa State has with Iowa Prison Industries.

Clark said Iowa Prison Industries has made connections with the university in the past, thus creating the relationship that enabled Quick to work hand-in-hand with prisoners.

“We’ve been really happy with the students we’ve had from Iowa State,” Clark said.

Nall said she also enjoyed working with Quick at the sewing plant during her time there.

“[Quick] was great to work with,” Nall said. “It was fun to be a part of that project, and I’m happy I got to help.”

Quick said she feels the experience was beneficial to her not just for job experience but for the opportunity to interact with a unique demographic of people.