Milanese Tales (part 1)



To very briefly recap on the last year since my last blog – I have been very busy with Stretch. The Big Lottery funded project Stretch Digital has taken all my energy to establish a presence in the UK prisons and to validate my ideas around easy access to technology and using technology for well-being and creativity in prisons and with returning citizens in the community.

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I have used a lot of my knowledge acquired from my trips to Australia and the Norway, not only technical systems and practical uses of different technology but more the differing styles of ‘rehabilitation regimes’ and the ethics of various world-wide prisons.

So, recently my work has taken me to Milan, the place of my birth – on another prison related adventure. Over the last year I have found myself working with Central Saint Martins ‘Design Against Crime Research Centre’– and I couldn’t be more delighted. I think I have found the spiritual and logical home for my quite obscure research interests. It all started when I attended a lecture at St Martins about the ‘Maverick Economy’ – I had had in mind always working with DAC and looks like my dreams may just come true! Watch this space for future research plans with CSM.

First stop in Milan was the ‘Cooperative Sociale Alice‘ which is a fashion boutique and workshop. The team and I are very interested in prison industry and different models of prison ‘work’ for rehabilitation and re-intergration into the community. Although not directly connected to Digital Storytelling – as a social entrepreneur myself,  I am always interested in ways prisoners create and design and work  themselves out of criminal behaviour.

Our host Caterina,  from Socially Made in Italy , told us about the scheme where prisoners learn work skills in the prison and then come out to work in the workshops and create very high quality items. The scheme is actually working with Ilaria Fendi on a series of sustainable bags designs under the name Carmina Campus – a really inspirational model.

It was a hot and sweaty Milanese day and the ‘Cooperative Sociale Alice’ did not have air conditioning. It was a tiny, inconspicuous back street store with a little studio and lab in the back. The first thing that struck was the quality of the clothes. These were Milan-fashion standard, beautiful lines, simple and stylish – made out of beautiful materials – many of which were actually woven in the prison. There was nothing community-arts about these products, proper industry standard. I came away with two designer dresses that I am really pleased with.

Caterina told us about the scheme that sees prisoners trained within the prison and working at a high standard form within to then come out to the labs outside. This is the same scheme that Ilaria Fendi supports, and Fendi staff actually work closely with the prison to ensure that anything made is ofthe right standard. They have a few contracts, such as Graduation Gowns, and have made for other designers, and a few different ranges from high-end designer to their work-wear label.


Vivienne’s story


Much of the talk was a bit over my head – about the manufacturing models – I was hooking in to the narratives that ran along side the production and the products. I really like that fact that Caterina had said, “to manufacture – is to tell a story” and that there were many stories that ran along side the products. Every item might have ten different stories. Caterina was working on a prototype working model, a vertical system,  where it is not just selling because of the emotional story, every one is getting paid the right amount and they only make enough to be sold and keep the business going as a sustainable entity.


Over a beautiful Italian lunch we heard about how the prisoners in Italy actually earn wages exactly in line with the outside – they join the same unions and are paid as workers – then they actually contribute to their keep in the prison and they are able to maintain a position with their family as ‘contributor’ and ‘bread winner’ by sending money home – I thought this was particularly striking –  prisoners in England are infantilised with a ‘pocket money’ system,  how many prisoners are written off by their loved ones as ‘good for nothing’ ? Just imagine if their narrative could change to provider and worker, from within the prison? 

I have more to write, my next post is about the actual prison visits – and then I want to talk about the prison industries and ideas for similar ‘enterprise hubs’ in England.