What advantages can a social enterprise bring to the management and development of a detention house? This is one of the questions we ask ourselves as members of the RESCALED network – the European Movement for Detention Houses – to implement or improve, in different countries, alternative detention facilities to prisons. Based on the fundamental three pillars of small-scale, differentiation and community-integration – detention houses not only humanize conviction but contribute to the creation of safer, equal and more inclusive societies. As a network of organizations, we believe that the collective reflection on ways to turn this vision into reality involves not only the continuous exchange of good practices but also the pooling of doubts and questions to be answered together.

One of the projects Reshape is involved in as a member of the RESCALED Movement is INSPIRE, a project funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program which, as evoked by its acronym, has Incarceration & Social Purpose in Restorative Cities as its main theme. INSPIRE is a collective learning process about detention houses and their dynamic interaction with their local urban, economic and social context. In the virtuous intersection of theory and practice, we try to answer the following questions: What are good examples of restorative justice in relation to detention houses? How can a detention house be implemented? How can a detention house finance itself through a social enterprise? And how can we enhance and amplify the voice of lived experience during the implementation process?

The focus on social entrepreneurship emerges as an effective response in the search for a circular approach between the desire to build paths of personal development, the promotion of social inclusion and sustainable projects for people who have to serve a sentence according to a perspective that does not isolate them but capacitates them (also) in the world of work. And, since this perspective tends towards real social reintegration, the community-integration pillar becomes crucially important.

But what are social enterprises in the first place? They can be defined as businesses “with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximize profit for shareholders and owners” (DTI, 2002, 13). Unlike commonly understood companies, social enterprises create employment and services with a social purpose, democratically engaging people and developing benefits for people with socioeconomic disadvantages and vulnerability, under the terms of self- and community empowerment. 

These kinds of enterprises have a long history in the socio-educational world, born to provide answers linked to the job market while pursuing broader goals such as learning, sharing practices, developing skills and creating environments conducive to the inclusion of people who are very often marginalized or cared for in an assistentialist way. However, it is only recently that more in-depth reflection and knowledge about these realities has been developed, especially in the world of social justice.

One of the many examples of social enterprise within the prison system is the restaurant “InGalera” in the penitentiary of Bollate (Milan, Italy). This unique restaurant is open to the public for lunch and dinner, where people can have an experience which is simultaneously culinary and social: the employees in the preparation and serving of refined dishes are people who are serving a sentence and/or preparing for release, assisted and trained by a professional chef and maître d’hôtel. Many of the workers can receive specific training to obtain a hospitality diploma in the Paolo Frisi Hotel School, located in one of the sections reserved for job placement in the penitentiary of Bollate. “The restaurant was created with the purpose of offering regularly employed prisoners the possibility of learning or regaining a work ethic. It is a meaningful journey in which they receive professional training and learn to be responsible. Here, they prepare to enter civil society and the work arena.” (InGalera presentation). Born in 2004, InGalera keeps representing a strong methodology for training and employment, also thanks to the support of the Cariplo Foundation, the Italian Minister of Justice and other organizations that foster the creation of social enterprises. 

However, within the INSPIRE project, of greatest interest is the implementation of social enterprises within detention houses, conceived as a fruitful way of supporting pathways of successful reentries and contributing to small-scale facilities sustaining themselves economically by not relying on one source of funding. The interweaving of detention houses and social enterprises can take place in very different organizational ways, considering that the activities and services offered by social enterprises can be developed internally or externally, by the NGO running the detention house itself or by other organizations. 

What is interesting in this kind of approach, as aforementioned, is that social enterprises respond to two complementary challenges regarding both economic and socio-educational purposes. The successful running of these realities therefore leads to the possibility of the detention house becoming more and more self-financed thanks to the incomes coming from the enterprise’s activities while representing an interesting pedagogical method for the residents of the detention house itself. In socio-educational terms, participation in work activities of this kind promotes job training and the development of skills that are both marketable (for example: woodworking, gardening, electrical maintenance…) and personal. Thanks to structured employment opportunities, people in detention houses can prepare themselves for a smoother transition to liberty as their social reintegration is supported by the benefits of their engagement in meaningful work: major confidence and self-esteem, sense of accomplishment and proactiveness, stronger working chances, sense of belonging in a supportive network of people which can extend beyond the workplace. 

The SeeHaus Juvenile Prison in free forms in Leonberg (Germany) serves as a good example of how a detention house can host a social business program, not only to generate income for the maintenance of the house but also to offer work and promote job skills to its residents. Its business regards training and the promotion of a wide range of activities (gardening, landscaping, metallurgical work, carpentry, construction, and joinery). Although the income from these activities is not enough to cover the house costs – mostly covered by public funding and donations – their social enterprise is an efficient tool for education, training and social inclusion.  Through offering services to the neighbourhood, the social enterprises managed by SeeHaus promote greater integration with the local community and encourage professional skills for residents. Indeed, social enterprises play a fundamental role in promoting change in the local community, positively influencing social and economic dynamics. The work medium helps mend the tears in the social fabric, creating the conditions for the inclusion and empowerment of marginalized groups of people and stimulating local economies, where profits are often reinvested into community initiatives for transversal well-being. The collaboration between social enterprises and detention houses exemplifies the transformative potential of businesses with a social mission to create a more equal and cohesive society.

It is in this respect that social enterprises contribute to the realization of the community integration pillar which underlies the RESCALED approach. Implementing detention houses requires the creation of a welcoming environment for their residents, encouraging mutual involvement and responsibility with people living in the area, besides collaboration with other services and/or professionals (social and healthcare programs, local governments, municipalities and volunteers).  

The integration of detention houses, especially when newly built, in local communities is a big challenge when it comes to cohabitation with neighbors: stigmatization, fear and misconceptions can create barriers and vicious circles that deepen the sense of isolation that people deprived of their liberty often experience. The NIMBY (NotInMyBackYard) effect represents all those attitudes of opposition towards projects that are seen as negative for the neighborhood – for example detention houses – which are often brought about by preconceived ideas about conviction. The feeling of threat, the fear of irrational risks and the difficulty in acceptance mostly come from a lack of information and sensibilization. 

Social enterprises can step in and offer activities that can reduce the NIMBY effect or even initiate YIMBY (YesInMyBackYard) processes, generating value for the community as a whole. Initiatives that bring people together throughout shared spaces and activities like those exemplified before, allow residents to get to know a reality they probably used to have many prejudices about, transforming stereotypes into faces and names. Moreover, it can represent a pathway for a more restorative approach to justice, symbolically and financially speaking, reducing recidivism and contributing to a general feeling of safety and fairness. 


INSPIRE project: 

InGalera Restaurant:

From NIMBY to YIMBY practice booklet:

Léa Sébastien (2013). “Le NIMBY est mort. Vive la résistance éclairée : le cas de l’opposition à un projet de décharge, Essonne, France”, Sociologies pratiques, vol. 27, n°2, pp. 145-165.