The agile hands of men who once worked as pickpockets, hit men and drug traffickers are these days dedicated to a much more docile task: cutting and sewing fabrics to create fashionable clothes at a workshop in the prison where they are serving time.
The inmates at San Pedro de Lurigancho, Peru’s biggest prison, are taking on a new role, sewing for a brand called Pieta — “Mercy” in English — that sells clothing online and has attracted the interest of celebrities including Pharrell Williams, who appears on the brand’s Facebook page holding up a shirt.
“They are motivated to work,” said Thomas Jacob, a French designer and businessman leading the initiative. “The crime they’re there for, morally, doesn’t matter to me.”
The 32-year-old founder got his idea several years ago while working in Peru shipping fabrics to fashion houses like Chanel. After attending a play performed by inmates based on a novel by Victor Hugo, he struck up a conversation with the prisoners. They mentioned that they had sewing machines in jail but didn’t have the knowledge or means to create anything with them.
The remark sparked an idea: Give inmates work sewing clothes.
The brand today has sold some 200,000 clothing items and produces 1,000 more each week. Its logo consists of four vertical lines and one horizontal — the image prisoners in Peru sketch to count their days behind bars. Popular designs include simple white T-shirts with playful graphics mentioning Peru.
Inmates earn nearly the equivalent of Peru’s minimum wage for their work and also see their sentences reduced. Many of the prisoners say the work helps them stay busy and avoid the mental anguish of being behind bars. It has also given them new hope for the sort of life they might lead when they are freed.
“I want to move forward and start my own business,” said Luis Casimiro, one of the jailhouse workers who is behind bars for aggravated robbery.
Many of the 30 men at the machines leave each semester because they are freed, transferred to other prisons or find the job too grueling. But overall the work environment isn’t all that different from any other clothing workshop.
Peru’s jails are notoriously overcrowded, but over the last decade, prison officials have partnered with entrepreneurs to help find work for inmates and a potential path out of crime. As of 2018, 117 business leaders had signed agreements to offer jobs to inmates.
Jacob said he has big plans to market their clothing to Europe and the United States.
“If it wasn’t profitable,” he said, “we wouldn’t continue.”