Solitary Confinement Coffee May Be the Worst Branding Idea Ever

sakhorn38/iStock


Jailhouse Coffee

Do prison cells sell? That seems to be the idea behind Solitary Sumatra, an organic, fair trade coffee blend sold by Jailhouse Coffee, a newish small-batch roastery in New York City. The coffee is not made by prisoners or ex-felons and the company’s only connection to incarceration is that, according to its website, “there is a ‘bighouse’ just near the roastery” in Queens.

The 83 marks scratched into the coffee bag far surpass the 15 days the United Nations specifies as the maximum amount of time anyone should spend in solitary confinement. Anything beyond that “constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than 80,000 prisoners are in isolation at a given time in the United States. Some of these are the “worst of the worst,” but many are not. In New York, prisoners have been thrown in the hole for “wasting food” or having an “untidy cell or person.” On Rikers Island, not far from Queens, 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent long stretches in solitary confinement during the three years he spent in pretrial detention for allegedly stealing a backpack. Two years after his release, he committed suicide. Nearly two out of five suicides in prison happen in solitary confinement. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, President Obama, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have spoken out against the excessive use of solitary confinement in this country.

So who thought solitary confinement would make a good branding idea? Is it just hipster irony that makes our prison system’s most extreme aspects somehow cute? Perhaps it’s the Orange Is The New Black effect, a consequence of the popularization and romanticization of prison life. (Like the woman who dressed a girl in an orange jumpsuit and blackface for Halloween last year.)

I couldn’t reach anyone at the company to explain their marketing strategy. So far, they seem to have gotten little flack for their brand, though one person has taken it upon himself to circulate a petition asking the company to change its name. Jailhouse Coffee’s blends also include Solitary Peru, Good Behavior Organic Blend, and Chain Gang Espresso, which harkens to the time when black prisoners were used as free labor across the South.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.