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Inside Europe

Fashion Is Helping Italian Prisoners' Futures

Thousands of prisoners worldwide are a silent source of cheap labor. In Italy, though, an entrepreneurial group of ex-cons is producing its own goods -- loudly and proudly marketing them as "Made in Jail."

A sewing machine

Designing and sewing fashion is boosting prisoners' self-esteem

The "Made in Jail" label makes everything from logo t-shirts and sweats to handbags. Over the years, the company has proven that what inmates learn on the inside makes for good business on the outside.

The man behind the company is 48-year-old Silvio Palermo. For the past two decades, he's been coming to Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome several times a week. He runs his small, but thriving business from the inside of one of Italy's toughest prisons.

In a workshop crammed with silk-screening frames, shelves, long wooden tables and paints, the co-op's inmates come up with tongue-in-cheek lines like "I'm too sexy to have to work" or a witty commentary on capital punishment like the word "No" -- with the letter o in the shape of a noose.

They then silkscreen the words or designs onto t-shirts and handbags and, with the help of a group of ex-convicts who work for the co-op on the outside, sell them across Italy.

All of the t-shirts have the "Made in Jail" logo boldly imprinted across the front or back.

Working to feel useful

Palermo first came up with the concept of making the t-shirts when he did time back in the 1980s in his late teens for political association with the Red Brigade terrorist group. While in prison, he reformed. But he said his jail experience nearly put him over the deep-end. When he got out, he wanted to help other men cope with being confined.

hands through prison bars

Sewing gives inmates something to do

"Prison is the quintessential place of thought and reflection," Palermo says. "You're already closed up inside yourself, so the danger with prison is that you can literally go crazy thinking about yourself too much."

Sandro, a 43-year-old ex-drug addict, is finishing off a sentence for drugs and robbery. He says he likes the creativity of the work, and the chance to share jokes with the other men.

"It's exactly because it's very difficult to find laughter in prison, that with this work, at least for a small part of the day, you can laugh and have fun coming up with funny lines or wordplays," Sandro says.

His colleague Gaston was living with an Italian family and working as an electrician when he got hooked on cocaine and landed in jail. The 26-year-old originally from Trinidad and Tobago says his first months in Rebibbia were full of despair. But the co-op has helped him stay positive by feeling useful.

"First, it passes the time," Gaston says. "Second, you learn something. Third, it distracts you from thinking negatively about drugs and your bad life, so it's educational."

Not for everyone

Organizer Palermo says the t-shirts are really just a pretext to communicate with the outside world. And to help ex-cons cope with an invisible label that sticks for the rest of your life.

a t-shirt

The "Made in Jail" logo is proudly printed on all the products

"The problem for prisoners is that once you've done time, there's a sense that you're irredeemable," Palermo says. "So what we're doing is trying to flip the meaning of prison away from something purely negative."

He says he wants to show that prison is also a place where creative projects are born.

"But society has to be open to these projects," Palermo says. "Prison walls only get lowered when the outside world is willing to give these kinds of initiatives a chance."

The group sells its goods in small shops throughout Rome and at roadside restaurants across the country. Inmates get paid about 1 Euro ($1.30) a shirt and once they're on the outside, get a regular salary. The co-op even has its own store -- ironically, a retail space that used to belong to a mafia-run business until it was confiscated by the Italian state.

"Made in Jail" now does about 200,000 Euros ($260,000) of business each year. Still, despite its good intentions, Palermo says not everyone appreciates the humor behind the initiative.

"Sure we hear scornful comments, but it doesn't matter," he says. "It's important for us to assert the fact that of course we're ex-cons, but we're working legally now."

Inmate Sandro says he plans to join the 30 or so ex-cons who run the co-op when he gets out of Rebibbia. They're going to need him. Italy's biggest national roadside restaurant chain is now selling the t-shirts. A hopeful sign that "Made in Jail" is starting to be seen as a legitimate enterprise.

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