Mirko Prochilo went to prison for robbery when he was only 14 years old. Both of his parents died of heroin addiction before he reached 22.
He didn't think he had much of a future, and he didn't expect to find it in jail. That was before he started taking fashion courses offered behind bars - and discovered he had a flair for design. Immediately after his release in 2001, he became one of four ex-convicts to launch the site www.madeinjail.com for the T-shirt label, "Made in Jail," which has caught online attention as far away as Tokyo. He was hired by the company even before his term was up.
"Making T-shirts in prison made me realize that I wanted to work when I got out," said the 23-year-old, neatly dressed in a baseball cap and creaseless jeans.
Mr. Prochilo, who gets 10 percent of the earnings from every T-shirt he designs, pauses from his shirt-making routine. "Because I worked in jail, I didn't go back to stealing," he says.
Prisoners have long produced such things as olive oil. But the fashion trend has taken off only recently, with Made in Jail inspiring prisons across Italy to offer courses in fashion design. It's part of a growing effort to reduce recidivism by giving convicts real-life experience, as well as a path to a paying job, before they're released.
Last year, the Justice Ministry reported that 612 prisoners found work through 62 cooperatives such as Made in Jail, which receive government subsidies.
For Prochilo, the turning point was meeting Silvio Palermo, founder of Made in Jail, who was teaching a screen-printing class to juvenile inmates. Prochilo says the craft didn't interest him at first but eventually made him consider his future goals.
Mr. Palermo, who was formerly connected to the Red Brigades terrorist organization, appealed to regional and municipal politicians for funding for Made in Jail after he was convicted and imprisoned for his actions in a 1981 riot.
Today, former drug dealers, sex offenders, and murderers are sketching, sewing, and selling handbags and garments on Milan's most fashionable promenades. The Justice Ministry and the European Institute of Design recently sponsored a show for prisoners at Rome's Rebibbia Prison. And female prisoners in Milan's San Vittore prison are working on an avant-garde wedding collection that fashion house Krizia has agreed to manufacture.
Giovanna Longo, who manages educational training at San Vittore, says these co-ops have long-term psychological advantages. "Instead of spending 24 hours a day in a cell, when they are not doing anything, they can consume themselves in a productive activity," she says. When released, prisoners who participated in the programs are "no longer connected with the world of drugs or homicide, but with a job and a normal life."
Italian prisoners may also receive a check from the government if they work as cooks, mechanics, carpenters, or street cleaners on the outside.
Italian penal code is based on reforms inspired by the 18th-century author, Cesare Beccaria, a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Beccaria concluded that to prevent recidivism, a man must be educated, enlightened, and his virtue rewarded.
Italy's far-right Justice Minister Roberto Castelli supports education for convicts, a right that is inscribed in the Italian constitution. "It is right that prisoners can work in prison because it is the principal avenue for recuperation and their entrance back into society," he explains.
Made in Jail sold 20,000 T-shirts in 2005, and has two stores in greaterRome. But the group is still struggling to market itself internationally. It had just over $200,000 in sales last year. Prochilo, who spent four years in prison, now makes enough money to pay his rent and enjoy a social life. "I make a decent salary, and I even have a few girlfriends," he says. "For me, Made in Jail cancelled my past. Now I have a life and a future."