“Prison Brands: Regenerative Justice as a Business Model” – Christian Sarkar, Enrico Foglia, and Philip Kotler
What happens when businesses refuse to hire at-risk juveniles?
Social worker Lucia Lauro was frustrated at the indifference of local businesses in Palermo, Italy – they simply weren’t interested in hiring minors from the prison system.
Lauro knew that without an alternative path, first-time offenders would inevitably find their way back to prison. So she did what entrepreneurs do: she decided to fill the “unmet need” by starting a business to do so.
The director of the Penal Institute for Minors of Palermo – Michelangelo Capitano – was also thinking along the same lines. He had been designing a program which would create public-private partnerships – and Lauro’s potential as an entrepreneur was just what was needed to bring his mission to life. The idea became a reality with the guidance of institutional partners – the Penal Institute for Minors of Palermo, Opera Don Calabria, National Association of Magistrates and San Zeno Foundation.
On the business side, Lauro reached out to Nadia Lodato, a prison and planning expert, and together, the two women established Cooperativa Rigenerazioni Onlus – a social entrepreneurship built on a business model of regenerative justice.
Regenerative justice is about breaking the patterns of escalation which result in criminal behavior and violence. Its goals are to integrate released prisoners back into society as productive, even exemplary, citizens and leaders, and secondly, prevent young people from becoming criminals in the first place.
Regenerative justice builds meaning and belonging. It does so by building relationships of trust based on respect and common values. It looks for intervention opportunities for the child, adolescent and young adult, seeking to reverse destructive behaviors through the design of positive alternatives.
The design of regenerative alternatives begins with mindsets: how do you teach the young how to avoid and overcome conflict? What support mechanisms must be built into the legal and social infrastructure? How do social workers help parents, teachers, and civil authorities create a positive path for breaking patterns of escalation? How do institutions break the patterns of prison acculturation?
These were the first questions Lauro and Lodato asked themselves as they set about building a remarkable organization which was just recently recognized by Sergio Mattarella, the President of Italy.
The Prison Brand
A prison brand can be defined as an offering (product/service) developed to employ prisoners and prepare them for their release and successful reintegration into society.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), work programs in prison are one of the most effective ways to support prisoners’ successful reintegration into society, providing them with income and with relevant skills to find employment and reduce recidivism.
In 2020, the UNODC issued a guide to Creating a Brand of Prison Products which outlines the philosophy behind prison brands:
The creation of prison brands has been found useful in reducing the social stigma associated to imprisonment and in enhancing prisoners’ self-esteem, while meeting consumers’ demand for products that contribute to positive social goals. The negative perception of prisons and prisoners can be an obstacle to prison products being considered reliable and attractive. Prison products are often perceived as second-rate products not trusted to meet required quality standards. There may also be additional concerns, such as the notion that supporting prison work creates an undue privilege for prisoners in a general context of economic difficulties and prevalent unemployment. Conversely, there may be concerns that prison products result from exploitative working conditions in prisons and, as such, should not be supported. Creating a prison brand requires identifying and challenging such negative perceptions. In fact, creating a prison brand and developing an appropriate communication strategy around it offers an opportunity to overcome the negative perception and stigmatization of prisoners.
Prison brands – properly developed and nurtured – can create a pathway to community regeneration.
- Is a brand of prison products or services needed?
- Is there sufficient capacity to create and own the brand of prison products or services?
- Do work programs for prisoners comply with international standards?
- What role can be played by external companies in developing and “going to market” with prison brands?
- What must be done to maximize transparency and prevent exploitation?
Lauro and Lodato’s regenerative strategy – developed and implemented in 2016 – goes well beyond the UNODC vision and creates pathways to employment beyond prison. The cooperative built a house of interrelated brands, both products and services, which extends outside the prison, into the community:
- Cotti in Fragranza: a brand of baked products (the name translates as “Caught in the Act”) which is produced in prison and sold across 100 locations in Italy and parts of the EU. The brand was born in 2016 inside the Malaspina juvenile prison in Palermo, Sicily. Tenute Orestiadi, one of the biggest wine cooperatives in Sicily, helps distribute Cotti in Fragranza products using their distribution network. The catalog of products (watch this old video) is expanding, with online sales opening more avenues for growth:
- Casa San Francesco: a 17th-century Franciscan convent, where Cotti in Fragranza operates in the community – with activities like packaging, catering, fresh food, and take-away food. Fittingly, the convent was an infirmary, and now has been repurposed as a regenerative force in the neighborhood.
- Al Fresco Giardino e Bistrot: a restaurant which serves tourists with a “slow-food” menu created by Chef Francesco Gambino and the juvenile workers who are learning to build productive lives outside prison and in the community. The quality of the food and the unique menu choices have created an experience matched by the ambiance of the garden setting.
Future Plans: Extending the Ecosystem
The business vision of Lauro and Lodato extends the hospitality of the restaurant to room and board. The plan is to renovate the convent to create B&B accommodations for the growing tourist traffic in Palermo. Despite the challenges of COVID, the enthusiasm for the expansion is palpable. The idea of creating an ecosystem of products and services, extending from prison to the community, to the tourist visitors is not limited to the boundaries of the organization. Collaborative business initiatives are being discussed with other entrepreneurs and owners in the Ballaro community.
The outcomes of this social enterprise can be measured not just in profits but in community value-creation. As we noted in another article, community regeneration is about community value creation as well as business value creation.
For a prison brand, community value extends into the future. What is the ROI (return on investment) for such programs? The impact must be measured in terms of lives changed, and future crime prevented. Lauro measures her progress in terms of happiness. Her recipe is simple: “if our employees aren’t happy, then we’re not succeeding,” she explains. “The chef must be happy, the employees must be happy, and our customers must be happy – in that order.”
This model of prison to community value creation can be extended to other business models as well. We are looking for examples of digital businesses, for example. Let us know if you come across any examples. See also: “Can Politics be Regenerative?” – An Interview with Sicily’s Cettina Martorana
Christian Sarkar is the editor of this site, and is a co-founder of the Regenerative Marketing Institute with Enrico Foglia and Philip Kotler.