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Italy prison fashion brand gives inmates new hope

The Sigillo brand, which will be available in shops soon, has given new energy to places like a handbag workshop at Rebibbia prison in Rome

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Women's workshops across are joining up under a new commercial they hope will help encourage more detainees to learn the trade and give them hope for a future on the outside.

The Sigillo (Seal) brand unveiled by the justice ministry this year will be available in the shops within months -- a unique experiment that has given new energy to places like a handbag workshop at Rebibbia prison in Rome.

"When I get out I want to have a more normal, a calmer life. With this job I'm sure everything will be okay with me. I've learnt a lot here," said Kalu Uwaezuoke Chinedum Ike, a Nigerian facing drug trafficking charges.

The 40-year-old works three afternoons a week in a room with sewing machines, cutting tables and bars on the windows.

Rows of blue-doored cells can be seen from the workshop in what is Italy's biggest women's prison with more than 700 detainees.

After more than three years inside as she awaits the conclusion of her trial, Kalu has acquired a knack for stitching and beading.

"I've always been a person who likes dressing well, even when I didn't have enough to eat," she said, adding: "I have a real passion for it!"

Prisons in Italy are notoriously overcrowded, and funding has been repeatedly cut in recent years, making for what Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri recently called a penal system "that is not worthy of a civilised country".

There are a few exceptions -- innovative projects like a theatre workshop, also at Rebibbia, whose performance of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" became the award-winning film "Caesar Must Die" released two years ago.

After three years of bureaucratic hurdles, promoters of Sigillo hope the project -- which has 400,000 euros (USD 520,000) in funding from the justice ministry and 400,000 euros from charities -- will be a similar success.

"The aim of the project is to give female detainees the tools to be in the marketplace once they are released," said Nanda Roscioli, a former justice ministry employee and consultant who has been involved from the start.

Roscioli said it is also a way of countering a prison system oriented towards male detainees in which women are a "subordinate" minority.

"This makes conditions for female detainees harsher, more barbaric," Roscioli said.

"As far as I know this programme is unique," she said.

Daniela Arronenzi, head of the Rebibbia workshop charity, said she signed up to the non-profit project because it would give prison-made garments access to a wider retail network and something resembling an actual fashion business.

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