Female Convicts Make High-End, Italian Fashion Goods

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."

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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."

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