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Prisoners cooperatives in Italy

An introduction

08 / 1993

The job situation is a key factor in re-building of a prisoner’s social life. Unfortunately there are far too few occasions for people in prison to work; not to mention the often low quality of the work itself. In recent years new laws have been passed to improve prisoners job chances. Experimental projects have been set up and this has attracted further attention. Never the less the number of prisoners involved who have the chance to work and the resources available are astonishingly limited. Job opportunities within the prison framework still lack the necessary institutional support and concern. In recent years, prisoners have also begun to refuse jobs which are not linked to future job posibilities and a decent standard of living.

The abovementioned situation has lead some prisoners to explore possibilities of cooperative work both within the laws connected to jail conditions and other legal possibilities. Through these new projects they aim to create more concrete opportunities to influence the whole process of opening up job opportunities facilitating the present and future social life of prisoners.

There is nothing new in the constitution of working cooperatives amongst prisoners. Since 1985 the new fact is that the promoters and managers of these working projects are prisoners themselves. They have been able to set up small cooperative enterprises with limited responsibilities. The majority of workers are prisoners and ex-prisoners. These experiences are taking place in many prisons in Italy. They were initially promoted by political prisoners. Today they involve all kinds of prisoners.

To associate themselves in a cooperative is felt by prisoners to be the best way of satisfying their need for an identity and to escape social exclusion. This also allows them to be more directly involved in defining the kind of working approach to be adopted and to link it with a better social dimension.

From the beginning these cooperatives have been quite open to external inputs and partners. They include non-prisoners and often concentrate on the local reality around the jail house. Prisoners involved in the cooperative range from people concerned with alternative jail measures to people officially allowed to work ouside the jail house to ex-prisoners. Cooperatives are involved in a wide range of activities that try to take into account the type of training that the cooperative members need:

- craft skills, especially in traditional trades which are dying out;

- high levels of qualification, a new field;

- environmental and ecological work;

- publishing and printing activities;

- agricultural activities;

- building and construction work;

- research and computer work;

- social services in the fields of culture, sport and marginalised and disabled groups.

Most cooperatives are active in North and Central Italy. Many of them were only able to survive only for a short period of time due to the numerous legal and financial problems they have to face. But some of these experiences have been able to overcome legal, administrative, organizational, financial and training problems and to establish themselves as reliable work partners within their social context. They also had to overcome problems of their relations with trade unions and the cooperative movements.

The positive management of these cooperatives has been possible thanks to carefully made choices of how to organize the cooperative and its financial activities and the active support of institutions, local authorities and social groups. Problems have often been overcome by an active involvement in the problems of marginalised groups in general and by coordination of several cooperatives’ activities.

The new changes to the Italian law on cooperative work is a stimulus to these projects that are characterised by relevant social aims.

It must also be mentioned that all these initiatives have had positive results in terms of security.

Cooperative labour activities promoted by prisoners have been an innovative response to the lack of job opportunities within the prison. Prisoners have been able to identify by themselves job opportunities and working instruments to gain access to the labour market. Starting from relatively weak positions they are making an effort to achieve equal job opportunities. It is a fundamental step if prisoners are to enjoy the fundamental right to work and to have new possibilities of participating in social life.

Palabras claves

economía social, cooperativa

, Italia


This introduction is written by Sergio Greco a member and a volunteer of 29 Giugno prisoners cooperative. He has just completed a remarkable research on prisoners cooperatives in Lazio.


Translated by Alessio Surian




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