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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.
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