SAO PAULO – A score of male inmates at one of Brazil’s maximum-security prisons have been hard at work for months on creations set to debut on the runway at the 47th Sao Paulo Fashion Week.
“The other times I have been in prison I believed that the world of crime made up for it,” inmate F.S. said. “But now I’ve changed my mind, I want to be great, recognized and earn a living through my clothing.”
The 27-year-old convict is one of the 21 participants in Projeto Ponto Firme (Firm Point Project), launched in 2016 by fashion designer Gustavo Silvestre.
“Never before had a fashion collection come out of a prison to participate in an international Fashion Week,” he told EFE.
For three years, Silvestre has spent three hours a week at the prison in Guarulhos, near Sao Paulo, giving crochet lessons to inmates convicted of crimes that range from drug trafficking to homicide.
The prisoners are preparing 31 garments for display at Sao Paulo Fashion Week as the “Opportunity” collection.
Inmates control every aspect of the process, from choosing the name of the collection to deciding which garments to include.
The 2019 collection is meant to make visible the hard work of those behind bars and to raise awareness about the importance of rehabilitating inmates and preparing them to re-enter society.
“Here is a space for the construction of subjectivity, but also identity. Through granny’s crochet, they are building who they are, evaluating who they want to be after they leave,” Silvestre said.
Beyond learning how to sew, he added, the program gives inmates the chance to “learn and to polish their educational, cognitive, artistic, intellectual and social development.”
Another participant in the Ponto Firme workshop is 37-year-old J.L., who has locked up since 2006.
He told EFE that his dream is to make a career as a clothier and provide a “life of dignity” for his 14-year-old son, who he hasn’t seen in seven years.
“I am here for an offense under Article 121 (homicide). My life was out of control. My wife left me and took my son. I left this bad life behind and joined the crochet class. And now, when I get out, I want to open my own studio,” he said.
Brazil is third in the world in the number of people behind bars – more than 620,000, at last count – and 25 percent of convicts re-offend after their release, according to official data.
The high recidivism rate shows the need for rehabilitation projects, prison official Igor Rocha said.
“The majority of these men were born in extremely poor and violent communities. Crime was always part of their lives and they have grown up, since childhood, knowing only evil,” he said.
Once they enter prison, it is the responsibility of the state to provide them with new perspectives and show them that there is an alternative to crime, Rocha said.
Only around 600 of the 2,300 inmates in the Guarulhos penitentiary are pursuing some kind of rehabilitative or educational activity, such as reading clubs or skills training.
“If out of 25 inmates just five don’t return to crime, for me it was already worth it. Because it’s not just five lives saved, it’s five entire families and, in reality, an incalculable number (of people),” Rocha said.