TEXT OF STORY
Doug Krizner: Prisoners worldwide are a silent source of cheap labor. In Italy, though, some entrepreneurial ex-cons are loudly producing their own goods and proudly marketing them as Made in Jail. The Made in Jail label makes things from logo T-shirts to handbags. Theya€™re sold through shops in downtown Rome and at roadside restaurants across the country. We sent Megan Williams to the Rebibbia prison in Rome for a look at what inmates learn on the inside, and how it makes for good business on the outside.
Stacey Vanek-Smith: Inside one of Italy’s toughest prisons isn’t where you’d expect to find a bustling workshop churning out T-shirts with tongue-in-cheek lines like “I’m too sexy to have to work.”
But for the past two decades, the small silk-screening studio has served as the creative heart of the Made in Jail co-op. It’s a $250,000 a year business that sells its logo’d products throughout Italy.
Silvio Palermo first came up with the concept of selling the T-shirts while he did time here back in the ’80s. Some people have reacted negatively because they’re making a profit, but the group’s also doing this to raise awareness of prison life, like the challenges after being released.
Silvio Palermo: [translator] Sure we hear scornful comments, but it doesn’t matter. It’s important for us to assert the fact that of course we’re ex-cons, but we’re working legally now.
Three times a week, Palermo works with a small group of inmates, mostly in for drug charges. Together they come up with new slogans or clever graphics, like an exit sign with directions on how to jump over a wall.
Palermo holds up a T-shirt with one of the more risquA© sayings the men came up with: “It’s been a while since I’ve done it, so please give me a hand.”
Sandro is finishing up a sentence for drugs and burglary. He says he likes the creativity of the work and the chance to laugh.
Palermo [translator]: It’s hard to find things to laugh about in here. So with this work, at least a small part of the day is involved in coming up with funny wordplay.
Sandro says he plans to join the 30 or so ex-cons who help run Made in Jail when he gets out in a few months. They’re going to need him — the co-op just got a 10,000 T-shirt order from Autogrill, Italy’s biggest national roadside restaurant chain.
From the Rebibbia prison in Rome, I’m Megan Williams for Marketplace.
We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.
Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.
In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.
Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.