Why you should care

Because prison labor is no longer (just) chain gangs and license plates.

The first thing that hits me when I visit the picturesque Italian town of Ostuni are the blinding whitewashed houses and alleys — and mouthwatering mint omelet. But then I come across an odd store: Made in Jail. Here, women inmates at several nearby prisons have turned into stylists, launching a peculiar brand that goes beyond the classical made-in-Italy products. Those products range from handmade shirts and silks to bags and artisan objects that are all fabricated behind bars.

I get suspicious, scared. What if the lady behind the counter is serving a life sentence for killing her husband (in some cases, who could blame her?) or the girl showing me to the dressing room has gotten rid of her entire family? But once I’m in, I end up spending a small fortune. Things on sale have been given funny, appropriate names. The False Hand (named after a prosthesis used by many lady pickpockets to aid in their misdoings) is an iPad cover clutch you carry in one palm; Double Face and Double Panic are fancy, colorful bags in different materials. Bright mens’ ties hang on the walls (I feel an urge to use them as a weapon against my annoying boyfriend). More innocent items on display include keys and credit-card holders, black aprons, hair ribbons called Bandage Round the Head and even wedding confetti. Making these things helps women inmates’ rehab mission, and all revenues go into funding their work. Their healing motto is “Learn to love oneself again by fixing the crooked stitches of life.”

Imagine having a romantic dinner at a beach resort restaurant on a tropical prison island where the cook’s a killer and the waiters are rapists.

And they’re not the only ones. More prisons have launched this innovative “back to life” operation where prisoners — some in maximum-security cells — get paid and even have a pension! That’s something unemployed Italians can only dream of. Other inmates grow their own plot of veggies for the public, design clothes for haute couture catwalks and furniture for IKEA.

But the best part is food, and I don’t mean their homemade pasta made according to ancient techniques. Rather, it’s the experiences that come with the food. Imagine having a romantic dinner at a beach resort restaurant on a tropical prison island where the cook’s a killer and the waiters are rapists. Eating a plate of Assassin Spaghetti that almost makes you choke because of too much chili pepper. That’s certainly one unforgettable moment to send shivers up your spine — and not because your partner’s there.

Even better, how about stepping inside one of Italy’s biggest and most dangerous jails to lunch on savory dishes that have nothing to envy of Michelin-starred cuisine? It’s prepared by prisoners and is like a gourmet Dante’s Inferno. After dessert, if you have the guts, order a “coffee-killer” liqueur.

But there are also very cute things these inmates do to kill time and find their way back into society: In two northern prisons, they provide company to sick children in hospitals and have turned into pastry chefs. A patisserie has opened inside a jail where delicious Saints’ Nut cakes and Christmas panettone pies are made each morning. Who says a repentant inmate’s life can’t be as sweet as ours?

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