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Made in Prison: A Craftsmanship Mini-Documentary

Inside some Italian prisons, female inmates are using discarded fabrics to handcraft a range of goods to sell, and learning valuable job skills—literally stitching up their lives behind bars.

Theme: The Music Makers

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Story and film by LUISA GROSSO

Made in Prison is an unusual enterprise by almost any standards. Housed in the Lecce prison in the Puglia region (which begins where Italy’s boot forms a spur, just above the heel), this little business employs female prison inmates who use discarded fabrics to make clothing, handbags, and other textile goods. By doing so, this project, the subject of my short film, “Made in Prison,” is a kind of three-way win—saving souls, skills, and the environment, all under one humble roof.

Delle Donne envisioned a different kind of wealth, ‘measurable through social impact and resource savings, capable of bringing systemic change across the board.’”

The Made in Prison brand was created in 2007 by Luciana Delle Donne, a woman who, by her accounting, has two lives. Born and raised in Lecce, a Baroque city sitting on the heel of the Italian boot, Delle Donne moved at the age of 25 to Milan, where she built her first innovative career. After specializing in change management and strategic innovation, she created Italy’s first online bank. Then, after 20 profitable years as a bank executive with a comfortable lifestyle, her life suddenly fell into crisis (health problems, relationship problems, you can imagine the rest) with her role, her partner, and even her body, and she decided to change her life. In 2004, she left Milan and a top manager’s salary behind to return to Lecce, and dedicate herself to the disadvantaged.

Why this change? “It was as if I had put on another pair of glasses,” Delle Donne says. “I began to see human beings with their frailties, their difficulties.” After years of such good luck, Delle Donne now wanted to “give some of it back.” Despite her high income, she says her job had suddenly become dry and unsatisfying. “I wanted to use my skills to create value from another point of view,” she recalls.

Delle Donne envisioned a different kind of wealth, “measurable through social impact and resource savings, capable of bringing systemic change across the board.” One factor that influenced her was that she had missed her chance at motherhood. “I decided I wanted to help mothers in need.” And who, in her view, needed support more than incarcerated mothers separated from their children?


Delle Donne did not want to do charity or create another of many recreational workshops that abound in prison; she wanted to start a real business. After studying various fields, she settled on handmade tailoring. This, she reasoned, was a creative activity with untapped market potential. But even that wasn’t enough. Delle Donne wanted to build a model of the circular social economy that many visionaries dream of, but which few, if any, have achieved. The model Delle Donne envisioned was a business capable of being self-sustaining, both economically and environmentally, within the prevailing system of open market competition.

As Delle Donne explored the textile industry, she immediately noticed its enormous waste—some plants sent entire rolls of fabric off for pulping—a custom that presented an opportunity to get free raw materials. Fortunately, a number of Italian fashion companies, including market leaders such as Versace, were already concerned about environmental issues, and eager for more efficient methods of reuse and recycling. Several of these companies welcomed Luciana’s idea and started donating not only waste fabrics, but also abandoned machinery.

Thus was born Made in Prison (or as it’s called in Italy, Made in Carcere. The project is now thriving in six different prisons in the country’s southern regions. In suburbs that struggle with particular economic hardship, Delle Donne has used the same model of reusing textiles to set up 10 additional “social tailor shops.” The shops employ immigrants, former prisoners, and the very poor.


Upon arriving in Lecce to make this film, I start at the facility’s maximum-security prison, a building that houses prisoners who belong to organized gangs or mafia-type associations. Before I am allowed in, the guards check all my belongings, including each piece of my filming equipment.

After passing through various armored gates, I walk through a large courtyard for the prison’s sprawling men’s block, then to the much smaller women’s block. As as I enter this facility, the first thing I see is a small children’s play area inside another concrete courtyard. I am told that, at the moment, the playground is used by only one person—a child who is living here with its mother.

I am finally allowed to cross the threshold of the tailoring workshop (which they elegantly call La Maison), and suddenly, it no longer feels like prison.”

Before entering the women’s block, we are given a number of rules to follow: no filming in the cells, or of inmates behind bars, or anywhere besides the tailoring shop. After the lecture, I am finally allowed to cross the threshold of the tailoring workshop (which they elegantly call La Maison), and suddenly, it no longer feels like prison. Delle Donne explains how much she has had to struggle to create everything they have. From the carpets, furniture, and refrigerator to their sewing machines and herb plants, every little item Delle Donne brought in required difficult negotiations with prison authorities.

I am told that I can only talk to inmates working in the tailor shop, and only ask about their work—no questions about their personal lives. But the prison’s restrictions soon become irrelevant. Those who were willing to be filmed are plenty forthcoming. After offering me some surprisingly good coffee, they talk at length about the importance of their experiences with the Made in Prison project, how grateful they are to Luciana Delle Donne, and how privileged they feel compared to prisoners who do not work.

Throughout the day, I was continually stunned by the inmates’ enthusiasm, their frequent smiles, and their ability to move freely between the TV room, the gymnasium, and the facility’s reading room. At the time of my filming, 12 of the prison’s 70 female inmates were working in the tailoring workshop. Prices for their products are modest—under 10 euros for customized gadgets, and under 60 euros for bags and clothing. Some of the profits pay the female prisoners a modest salary, which many send home; the rest goes to developing tailoring shops in other prisons, and for disadvantaged communities outside prison.

It seems that working in the crafts offers more than just income, and more than an alternative to crime.

The social value of the Made in Prison brand is not lost on the companies that buy the prisoners’ products. Boldly advertised as an ethical investment, the operation sells mainly online, and its gross sales, from all prisons, comes to between 400,000 and 700,000 euros each year. Delle Donne has received numerous awards for this initiative, including one from the President of the Italian Republic. “The model works,” she says, “and I would like it to be copied in as many countries as possible to give women the opportunity to learn a trade and then, once out of prison, find work.” Delle Donne walks her talk. After Made in Prison graduates are released, Delle Donne employs many of them in her own company.


According to Italian government figures, gaining the skills to do paid work reduces recidivism by approximately 70 percent. Of the hundreds who have graduated from Made in Prison since 2007, surveys conducted by the Lecce Penitentiary Police Command have shown that 91 percent have not committed other crimes.

It seems that working in the crafts offers more than just income, and more than an alternative to crime. It reconciles former felons with the community; gives them skills they can be proud of, thereby fostering self-respect; and welcomes them into what can only be called the culture of beauty. With projects like this, maybe prisons could finally reduce their emphasis on punishment, and focus instead on skills built to last.

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