Female Convicts Make High-End, Italian Fashion Goods

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Convicts throughout the world have a famously tough time finding work after leaving prison. Employers tend to discriminate against ex-cons, and the criminal justice system rarely prepares prisoners adequately for re-entry into the workplace. But the Italian government is leading the way, at least in this regard. It's created the Sigillo fashion brand, and all of the products under that label will be created by female prisoners and sold in high-end fashion stores.

In the Rebibbia prison in Rome, female convicts are being trained in the art of handbag-making. Any inmate who chooses to participate in the program will earn a salary of 600 euros per month (or roughly $800), according to AFP. No less an authority than Fendi heiress Silvia Venturini Fendi herself supports the project. The handbags will retail for up to 40 euros (or $53), and will be available in fashion stores throughout Italy "within months," reports Business Standard.

Ten inmates have already agreed to participate in the program. Another 40 from across Italy are expected to join them. Officials hope that the training will lead to employment for them after prison. The Italian justice ministry has invested 400,000 euros for the program. Charities have kicked in an additional 400,000.

The program at Rebibbia is instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in its inmate participants, according to news reports. "When I get out of here, I would like to open a shop," said a 33-year-old who was born in the Ukraine, and identified by AFP only as Natalya. She also said that she and her fellow convicts find professional fulfillment from the program. "When we create things and they are sold, are appreciated, then we enjoy our work."

More: How Convicts Get Jobs Without Lying

According to Nanda Roscioli, a former Italian justice ministry employee, this professional training of inmates is "unique" in Italy. As to why the job training is only open to women, she said the "subordinate" minority in Italian prisons face conditions that are "harsher, more barbaric" then what men face. "The aim of the project is to give female detainees the tools to be in the marketplace once they are released."

Of course, Italy's ex-cons are hardly alone in their struggle to find employment. A study in New York City found that job applicants with a criminal conviction are nearly 50 percent less likely to be called for an interview or receive a job offer. As a result, many former convicts turn to nonprofit organizations, such as the Philadelphia-based Baker Industries, which trains ex-cons for free. The organization also helps its members find housing and clothing.

The Rebibbia participants, for their part, are optimistic about their employment future. "With this job I'm sure everything will be okay with me. I've learned a lot here," Kalu Uwaezuoke Chinedum Ike, a 40-year old Nigerian facing drug trafficking charges who's currently imprisoned at Rebbibia, told AFP. "When I get out I want to have a more normal, a calmer life."


11 Products You Didn't Know Were Made By Prisoners

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11 Products You Didn't Know Were Made By Prisoners
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Female Convicts Make High-End, Italian Fashion Goods
There are 36 prison Braille-writing programs in the United States. Through the American Printing House for the Blind, offenders help write K-12 textbooks for blind students. In Missouri, the Center for Braille and Narration Production employs 102 convicts, many whom are certified through the Library of Congress. They transcribe anything, from novels to music.
In the 1990s, Victoria’s Secret and J. C. Penney hired subcontractor Third Generation, who, in turn, hired people to stitch their lingerie and leisure wear -- 35 South Carolina inmates, Mother Jones reports.
In Florida, PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises) trains about 4000 inmates, who produce and provide over 3000 products and services. PRIDE’s forestry service makes park furniture like picnic tables, park benches, and wooden trashcan holders. Sixty-nine percent of PRIDE graduates land jobs after jail.
Federal Prison Industries, better known as UNICOR, consists entirely of convicts working at 89 factories. Together, they help clothe the United States military, making jackets, uniforms, helmets, shoes, and even flak vests. For police officers, they craft body armor and holsters.
Ironically, convicts at UNICOR also make human silhouette targets for law enforcer training. The shadowy targets help crime fighters in the FBI, Homeland Security, and U.S. Customs hone their aims.
From the 1970s to 1980s, political prisoners in Cold War-struck East Germany made products for the furniture company IKEA. The prisoners were reportedly paid 40 East German marks per month, about 4 percent of the monthly salary of the average East German worker.
Few things are as American as the baseball cap and free enterprise. Well, ball caps happen to be one of the few items UNICOR is allowed to sell to private customers and companies. (In an effort to keep private goods and prison-made goods from competing, UNICOR is generally forbidden from selling products to anyone outside the government.)
Colorado Correction Industries oversees approximately 60 inmate work programs. Jailbirds at Fremont County Jail, for example, build fiberglass-sealed canoes. They use scraps from the prison’s furniture shop and sell the canoes for around $1500. Other Colorado programs help craft those ubiquitous college dormitory desks and bookshelves.

San Quentin State Prison in California is a scary place. It houses some of the most menacing criminals in the nation, and it’s home to the largest death row in the United States. But at least it has a gift shop. There, you can buy convict-made music boxes, drawings, and paintings. You can even get yourself a greeting card made by one of death row’s own.

Photo: rocor, Flickr

The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is home to a 47,000 square foot facility: The Prison Blues Jeans Factory. It makes jeans, jackets, T-shirts, and hats, which you can check out here.
In Colorado, the Wild Horses Inmate Program (WHIP) trains wild mustangs, prepping them for adoption. Since 1986, the program has trained over 5000 mustangs. In Maryland, Second Chances Farm takes in retired thoroughbred racehorses. It rescues the out-of-work horses from the slaughterhouse and teaches outgoing inmates animal caretaking skills.
When some inmates leave the slammer, they roast coffee beans. I Have a Bean, owned by Second Chance Coffee Company, is a roasting plant in Illinois that helps ex-convicts restart their lives. The facility roasts six different kinds of coffee bean, from Costa Rica to Ethiopia.
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