A stitch in time: fashioning a life behind bars in Panama

In a small room in a prison on the outskirts of Panama City, Kathia Thomas carefully presses the screen on a digital sewing machine to choose the colors and embroidery on her next item of clothing.

Surrounded by other women, and by threads, patterns and a few religious images, Thomas, a 43-year-old mother of five children, is preparing the next collection behind bars.

She is part of IntegrArte, a brand of clothes, accessories and decorative objects, all made by inmates.

Thomas spends eight hours a day in the sewing room, mostly concentrating on embroidery. It goes toward reducing her three-year sentence for dealing drugs.

The Cecilia Orillac de Chiari penitentiary where she is kept holds 800 female prisoners, living in houses that feature kitchens, laundries, washrooms and dormitories.

“The problem inside is that it triggers many things. That’s why you always need something to do to keep the mind occupied,” she told the AFP.

“Making clothes frees you,” she added.

Twenty-five women work for IntegrArte in the prison, while another 50 receive sewing lessons.

So far, the brand has brought out one collection, called Paraiso Etnico (Ethnic Paradise) which combines styles from the 1970s and 1980s with traditional handiwork typical to Panama.

“I love making clothes because it’s a way for me to feel totally normal,” said a Colombian inmate, Claudia Luna, although she added that in prison “we lack a lot of material and work basically with our fingers, with whatever we have around.”

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