Jennifer Perry headshot

A local belt company has debuted its newest designs: navy blue and black Montana State University belts, manufactured by seamstresses around Montana.

“For years, people at MSU were like, ‘Why don’t you make a Bobcat one?’” said Jelt creator and funder Jennifer Perry. “It was always on the back burner.”

Perry founded Jelt in the hopes of creating a comfortable, stylish belt that could seamlessly transition from holding up jeans to holding up snow pants and activewear. The elastic belts are made from recycled bottles, with gel on the inside to hold on to clothes so it can be worn even on pants without belt loops. Perry said it took roughly a year and a lot of paperwork to get the okay to make officially licensed MSU belts, which come in two designs: blue with an MSU logo, and black with a Bobcats logo.

The belts aren’t available in the MSU bookstore, but can be found online, at Chalet Sports and at Girls Outdoors downtown. Adult sized belts retail for between $32 and $36. Because the new belts have officially licensed MSU designs, a percentage of the money made from them will go back to the university.

The MSU belts are manufactured by local freelance seamstresses and women around Montana living on rural ranches, but not all of Jelt’s merchandise is created by free women. The company is part of the Montana Correctional Enterprises program, a prison labor program that manufactures goods in both state prisons. Jelt merchandise is only made at the women’s prison.

“They’re mothers, they’ve been in abusive relationships,” said Perry. “They’re people who have made very bad decisions, but the fact that they want to participate in this program shows they want to turn their lives around.”

Ester Weis, MCE production manager at the Montana Women’s Prison, said the prison in Billings does screen printing, sewing, embroidery and hygiene-kit assembly. The men’s prison in Deer Lodge runs a ranch, a dairy, a print shop, and a sign shop, among other manufacturing programs.

“A lot of women come to prison and they’ve worked part-time jobs or been mothers,” Weis said. “This gives them a skill that’s relevant in the outside world.”

Weis said for the most part, the women come to work at 8 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m., although they can also leave for programming like classes or groups. They interview for the jobs, work 40 hour weeks, and hopefully leave the prison with a skill that can help them get a job or, if nothing else, experience and references to put on a resume.

Wages for incarcerated workers doing internal jobs — duties that keep the institution running, like laundry and dishes — are very low, generally between 40 and 85 cents an hour. Montana’s wages for incarcerated citizens are actually above the national average, according to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.{/span} Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas generally do not pay regular prison workers any wages while Minnesota and New Jersey pay regular prison workers up to $2 an hour.

Private companies operating in the prisons, like Jelt, have a national certification that requires payment to inmates to be in the “tenth percentile of the prevailing wage of the industry they’re working in,” said Weis. So, on the surface, the inmates working for these companies appear to be making much more money than inmates working in the kitchen or laundry room.

But paying some inmates much more than others can put their safety at risk, said Weis. So MCE garnishes those wages, taking up to 80% back for room and board, victim support, family support and restitution. The money taken from wages also helps pay full-time MCE employees and helps sustain the program so it doesn’t ever dip into Montana tax money.

”Those inmates still make a significant amount more than other inmates, but not exponentially,” Weis said.

Jelt donates portions of its proceeds to various nonprofits, including Warriors and Quiet Waters, Thrive and Yellowstone Forever. Perry said part of Jelt’s mission is to show that a for-profit business can also be a business that “gives back.”

“Our company is a social enterprise,” she said.

{span}Melissa Loveridge can be reached at {/span}mloveridge@dailychronicle.com{span} or at 406-582-2603. Follow her on Twitter @mel_loveridge.{/span}