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Italian Co-Ops Hire Inmates To Make Food And Fashion

Above Photo: Alberto Borgna from the Freedhome shop in Turin shows prison-made bags to customers | Rozanna Travis.

Proudly ‘Made In Prison.’

Prisoners in Italy pay for their own detention, and often leave prison in debt and without skills. A network of co-ops is trying to change this.

Hand-made jewellery, bottles of locally produced wine and other artisanal products line the shelves of a small shop in the centre of Turin, northern Italy. Two fashionably dressed women are browsing the selection of handbags.

‘Made in Italy’ is a popular label that attracts both tourists and locals. But here the products are more specifically, and proudly, ‘made in carcere’ (the Italian word for prison).

Forty co-operatives supply the shop – called Freedhome – with goods produced by around 2,000 prisoners. About half of them work on day-release outside prison: on farms, wineries or different workshops in nearby towns.

What the products have in common is an emphasis on quality, according to the shop’s website: “Whether it’s a biscuit, a T-shirt, something printed, a pack of coffee or an object of design, the goal is always the same: maximum quality, not maximum profit.”

“The effort behind [these workers’] production is great, and I want it to be respected,” says Alberto Borgna, who works in the shop and says he considers himself an educator as well as a salesperson. He gestures enthusiastically at different items.

“I always want to tell customers the story behind the products,” he says, pointing at a range of handbags made by women from Rebibbia prison in Rome. “The goal is always to show that another life is possible.”

Jobs And Opportunities

More than 54,000 people are incarcerated in Italy – where prisons are notoriously overcrowded (currently, they’re at 107% capacity) – and a controversial 30% of them have not been convicted of any crime but are awaiting trial. (Prisons in England and Wales are similarly overpopulated, but only 16% are on remand.)

A major problem, Borgna says, is that prisoners in Italy have to pay for their own detention, usually around €120 per month. This means that many people are “coming out of prison with no skills and no money and in debt” – and too often are “left all by themselves with no help”.

This is what he and others are trying to respond to – by providing jobs (for the same pay as outside prison) and opportunities to learn new, specialised and highly valued skills as artisanal producers of everything from food to clothing and accessories.

These initiatives have attracted nationwide attention through partnerships (for instance, with the Leroy Merlin hardware store chain, which stocks aprons and other textiles made by women prisoners) and media coverage (including in major newspapers and Rolling Stone Italy).

You didn’t feel like you were in prison. There was hope, there was the desire to change things

“You didn’t feel like you were in prison,” one former inmate, Lina, told Vanity Fair Italy of her experience working for one of the co-operatives. “There was hope, there was the desire to change things. For me, if it hadn’t been for that experience, I don’t think I would have moved on [after prison]. I still work with them today.”

A panettone (Italy’s Christmas cake) made in a prison in north-eastern Italy was named one of the ten best in the country in 2017 by the popular food website Gambero Rosso – and even profiled last year by the New York Times.

Concrete Solutions

“People in prison have the right to work,” insists Gianluca Boggia, president of Extraliberi, a social co-operative that coordinates with others across Italy to bring different products to the Freedhome shop.

But too often, Boggia explains, inmates are paid poorly or not at all. “About 12,000 people out of the 54,000 work in prison administration, helping with the daily maintenance of the prison, and those people are usually not paid for that work.”

“Work inside a prison is supposed to have the same features – salary and hours – as work outside,” he continues – and this is what cooperatives like his are trying to provide. “They are employees just like any other worker,” he says. “This is important because by working they give something back to the community.”

Extraliberi (‘Super free’) also has a print shop in Turin, designing and producing screen-prints and custom embroidery on clothing. It employs inmates on day-release from the local prison.

Boggia was working for a research institute on prison policies when, in 2007, he decided to develop concrete solutions to the problems he had identified, and co-founded Extralibri.

“Work in prison is important as it helps the inmates avoid returning to prison,” he says. “An inmate who perhaps outside prison has never had a legal job, can learn a trade and relationship skills, and can build a different future for himself.”

However, Boggia clarifies, for some people the transition to life and work outside prison is particularly hard. About a third of detainees are foreigners (compared to 13% in England and Wales) who also have to deal with Italy’s bureaucratic immigration system.

“Maybe they had a resident’s permit that they lost or couldn’t renew because they were in prison,” Boggia gives as an example, “When they get out, it’s a disaster.”

Challenges – And Rewards

The shelves at Freedhome are lined with colourful tote bags, laptop cases, hats, chef’s aprons and other garments. You can also buy wine and food, including olive oil, honey, dried herbs and biscotti. One display features artisanal pasta sauces, preserves and pickled vegetables made inside a prison in Cremona, south of Milan.

These prisoners work (some on day-release) for Rigenera Bon (‘Regenerates Well’), an agricultural co-operative run by Guisy Brignoli.

Involving prisoners isn’t always easy, Brignole says. To find a good supervisor, for example, “you need a sort of triple job description: agricultural worker, chef and prison social worker. So this really isn’t for everyone.”

Once released, some inmates continue working for the co-op, but many don’t. They may move, for instance, to another part of the country. The timing can be difficult for Brignoli. “They will eventually finish their sentence, and often this happens just when they get to the right level of experience for [a managerial] role,” she explains.

But the rewards of hiring prisoners are significant, she says. “If I think about the spirit of the inmates, we make a positive impact, because they have the chance to get out of their cell, work, save some money and learn new skills.”

Across Europe, fewer than a third of prisoners work, often for limited hours, in unskilled jobs and prison administration,” according to a 2019 report by the European Prison Observatory.

Authorities worldwide claim that their prison systems have rehabilitation as their ultimate goal – and people have criticised them for failing to live up to this. So the problems that Borgna, Boggia and Brignoli are trying to tackle are not confined to Italy. ‘Made in Italy’ labels are coveted by shoppers internationally – Italy is, after all, a famous creator of fashion and food. Could ‘Made in Carcere’ go global too?

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