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There’s a maximum-security prison in Brazil where male inmates are expert knitters

Brazil’s Arisvaldo de Campos Pires is like any other maximum security penitentiary—inmates’ crimes range from armed robbery to murder, and armed guards patrol almost every inch of the prison. Except there’s one small quirk: many of the facility’s prisoners are becoming professional knitters.

As part of a prison-wide program called the Lotus Flower project, inmates are crocheting high-end clothing in exchange for a modest salary and—the real kicker—reduced prison sentences. The program, which began in 2009 after Brazilian fashion designer Raquel Guimaraes realized she was going to need help scaling up to meet demand for her Doiselles brand, has been wildly successful; over 100 inmates have now participated. And unlikely as it may seem, it’s been a male-only affair. While Guimaraes originally approached the penitentiary with a proposal to train female prisoners to produce clothing, they decided to work the men instead.

The incentives are so good that inmates aren’t merely willing, but are eager to start knitting. For every three days spent knitting, male inmates earn a full-day reduction in their  sentences. And they get paid a salary—albeit a modest one—too: the workers earn 75% of minimum wage, a quarter of which is put aside and handed over upon their release.

Guimaraes, of course, never imagined that her ideal knitters would come in the form of tattooed felons, but the relationship has proved to be a surprisingly symbiotic one. Guimaraes’ company has managed to supply a slew of new stores, including some 70 across Brazil, as well as others in the US, France and Japan, and the prisoners have built skills and padded their bank accounts, all while reducing their time behind bars. “The program gives inmates skills and confidence they can use when they return to life on the outside. This raises the self-esteem of the prisoners, and opens the door to work and employment for everyone else,” Celio Tavares, a former inmate jailed for armed robbery, told the Daily Mail.

18 prisoners currently help Guimaraes produce her handmade knit clothing. Reuters photographer Paulo Whitaker spent time at prison to document the project.

Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security penitentiary is located roughly 100 miles from Rio de Janeiro. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Guards escort Brazilian fashion designer Raquell Guimaraes into the Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security penitentiary. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Guimaraes regularly interacts with her employees. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Including in a workshop set up in the prison. (Guards are always present in the room.) Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
The room where Guimaraes supervises the working inmates isn’t exactly a factory. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
But it is a productive one; Guimaraes has managed to supply 70 stores throughout Brazil, and several others overseas. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
The inmates earn more than money and reduced sentences: the program also helps increase their chances of finding a job when their sentences are up. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
Here, a prisoner draws a fashion model from a photograph for Guimaraes. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
The clothing the inmates knit can be found in boutique stores across Brazil. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker
And in high-end fashion shows. Reuters/Paulo Whitaker

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