TIRANA, September 1
Objects, like humans, have a story to tell. They carry the stories of their makers and are shaped based on their wishes. This can be the reason why most of the objects made by the women in Prison 325 are shaped like birds, butterflies, ladybugs, and other creatures that are free to fly.
Made in Prison Albania is a project that focuses on the economic empowerment of women prisoners by enhancing their handwork skills and facilitating their social reintegration as independent and skilled workers.
This interview with the team of the Made in Prison project tries to explain the necessity of life-skill training programs in prison facilities and their role in building a better future for former women prisoners. You can take a look at the products made by the women involved in the project, find something that you like, or even support Made in Prison by promoting it on your own. Contact Orkidea organization if you want to contribute to their cause.
Please can you tell us how did your project begin and what was the most difficult part about it?
Made in Prison was founded by Albanian organization Orkidea. It was inspired by a group of women at Prison 325. Those women have had hard life experiences while they continue to face challenges and problems that sometimes push them at the brink of survival.
The freedom-deprived women are supported by the staff of the Orkidea organization to learn or improve handicraft skills and to make products that buyers find interesting for personal use or as gifts. The women put love and devotion in their creative work that at the same time is a part of their current life phase.
However, challenges arise when it comes to teamwork, and communication as one single product requires more than one person’s expertise. On the other hand, the tools that are normally used for making crafts do not always meet the prison safety requirements. Inmates can use such tools to harm themselves or other people. Hence, some processes are carried out of the prison by a contracted expert.
The lack of funds is another challenge. Funds are needed to provide the raw materials for the products and keep on with sales. Hence, women would be more encouraged to learn and work. So far, the women showed interest in learning and especially in generating their own income. Further on, the COVID-19 situation affected the initiative by making it difficult for the project members to enter the prison premises for exchanging raw materials with finished products. In the end, this caused a drop in sales due to a decline in customers’ interest.
“We are glad to make money from our work. This motivates us. Money is indispensable here, even in small amounts. We meet our basic needs for shampoo or toothpaste without being a burden to our families.” L. H
Can you describe your work with the women that are part of the project?
The staff of the program used to meet with the women twice a week. At first, they provided the women with the materials needed for the products, various models, and tutorials on how to make the product. Regarding the types of handicrafts, that part was decided together with the women. There is also a product expert involved in the project. She supports the entire process, puts together the final products, and also takes care of quality assurance. Besides job training, the women received psychological support during individual sessions. They talk about their daily lives in an enclosed environment, their relationships with the other inmates and family members, and their future plans.
They are looking forward to our meetings as they are eager to learn or share new ideas. The women wish for more contact with the outside world. Yet, there are times when we find women almost in depressive conditions. In such cases more time is needed to involve them actively in the work process as they feel tired or unlikely to join.
For example, in December 2019 they were waiting for the prison amnesty and it was too difficult to keep them focused as they were expecting parole or sentence reduction.
How many women are involved in the project?
There are between 20 and 25 women that are part of the project.
‘Working with Made in Prison products helps to pass the time and to improve ourselves. I used to make lace and doilies, but now I really like it when my handmade crafts are applied to handbags or other accessories. I get really happy when I’m told that the product I made was sold. We even get requests from our clients. I feel so good, and I can’t wait for my products to get sold.” M. K
How much does the training last?
The training is an open process given that some women leave the prison while new inmates that want to become part of the Made in Prison project.
Almost all the women that were interested in the project have completed the basic part of the training. The training consists of nine sessions less than two hours each. Afterward, the women decide which product they will make. In the meantime, the handwork specialist tries to organize the work based on the strong abilities of each woman. For example, if someone has a talent for painting, she draws the design, while another one that’s more patient can work with knitting tools, crochet hooks, etc.
We have to say that training does not start from scratch, because many women used to do handwork before. Given that most of the women come from rural areas where handwork skills are part of traditions, they already know how to do different types of handwork.
However, during the pandemic, it was difficult to organize on-site training sessions and to exchange products and tools, due to the COVID-19 preventive measures.
What is the labor status of working inmates?
The employment of women has been a complex issue that gained attention from the Albanian Ministry of Justice. However, an old law is still in effect, but it came to our attention that a new law that would treat inmates according to the labor code has been drafted. Based on the new law they can benefit insurance payments and compensation based on their work hours.
The law that’s currently in force defines sentence reduction, about 3.9 days per month for working inmates as well as a ridiculous payment of Lek 150 per month.
The prison has a specific number of jobs for the inmates, mostly cleaning and sanitation, and other supportive services. The inmates for those jobs are recruited by the director of the prison.
On the other hand, it is important to highlight that many inmates are against the new law as their main wish is to get a sentence reduction, no matter how trivial it could be. There are also many prisoners that don’t want to get involved. It is necessary to pay attention to their motivation and labor skills, otherwise the initiative will not be successful.
How is the income shared?
Regarding the management of income generated from sales, we have an inventory. Each woman has a document with all her products. The money made from the sales of products is shared with the women’s accounts. Orkidea organization covers the cost of the raw material. We agreed with the women to cover the raw materials’ cost with the money generated from the sold products. Thus, the project would become self-sustainable and pass into the preparation stage as a social business or enterprise.
Are the products personalized?
Every product has the code of its maker. The name of the women is not unveiled do to privacy reasons. Yet we keep information about her life history and her reintegration in society.
“I showed the product photos to my mother, and she was thrilled. She’s trusting more in me, and she showed my work to her friends.” E. L
Are there women that continued working after leaving the prison?
Yes, there are women that work with handmade products and plan to sell them online.
Do you think that this experience encourages women to become economically independent and to start their own micro-small businesses once they’re free?
Of course, it helps. While working with the project, the women get customer service training. They learn how to treat customers and how to meet their requests.
Economic empowerment is considered key for the successful social reintegration for this target group. The women themselves are those who bring change through their personal and professional growth while being part of the project and beyond.
By upgrading their skills, the women will be able to use the gained knowledge to improve their social and economic independence. At the same time, they will serve as a model for other women within the justice system and out of it. Women’s right for decent work is an essential principle and promoter of change and success.
To what extent do you think job training impacts the rehabilitation of a former prisoner?
Job training helps a lot in rehabilitation starting with communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to make their own products. On the other hand, it helps to boost self-esteem for these individuals that have deep issues while trying to adapt to an isolated place and at the same time carrying a sense of guilt. The more economically and professionally independent the woman is, the higher are the chances that she leads a good successful life in freedom.
One of the women that work for the project and that generated considerable income compared to the others says that her mother has more respect for her. All the time, those women want to prove to their relatives and anybody else that they can make it.
What they only need is support. Some of their life histories show that they have never been appreciated, respected, or even heard.
Rehabilitation within the penitentiary system helps with social re-integration. They are more independent and more ready to face challenges after leaving prison.
How much time will take for Made in Prison to become self-sustainable?
Actually, this was our initial purpose, but there are many challenges, especially in the situation of a pandemic, when all our focus switched to the health of the prisoners. However, we will not stop working towards our goal.
How did the customers receive the products?
Better from what we thought. The products were well-received and there are clients that want custom products dedicated to them. Our customers are committed to contributing to a second chance for women in conflict with the law.
What can you tell about the products?
The raw materials used for Made in Prison products are selected with the aim of using a wide range of recyclable products such as accessories, garments, etc. Those materials meet the market standards and the requirements of our clients.
Did you get any criticism about your project?
Actually, we mostly received questions due to a lack of information, and skepticism on income that was clarified. Most of all we received props on the idea and the opportunity it offers to the women.
Did any local firm or business form the crafts sector show interest in training the women or give them jobs after they get out of prison?
We had some talks but it’s difficult to make them into concrete initiatives because the women are closed in prison and not anyone can have access to a penitentiary facility.
“Made in Prison Albania helped us improve our skills. It helped us improve and value ourselves, and to trust in our abilities. We learned to value the market of handwork and to adapt traditional craft to modern trends, to customers’ needs, and to the market. We learned how to display our products and much more. I really wish to continue doing this even when I get out of prison, and why not sell my products online. It’s my dream to open my own craft business.” A. H
Have you thought about expanding Made in Prison in other detention centers and to make men also part of the project?
Yes, we have thought about it, more specifically at Kavaja prison. We are still in the talks phase. Every prison has its own specifics including the profile of the groups that spend the prison sentence there. Moreover, good ideas also need financial support in order to make progress and become self-sustainable.
What does your project need the most?
Made in Prison needs promotion, support from long-term programs, and financial sustainability.
What is the biggest obstacle that you’re currently facing?
Currently, there are problems related to the pandemic outbreak. We also need to keep the buyers’ interest in Made in Prison products. We are also facing difficulties related to the purchase of raw materials.
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