The Portuguese Ceramic Industry serving the Prison System

Posted by Duarte Fonseca on

When Reshape Ceramics was created, we had 3 major goals in mind, in addition to creating concrete jobs and reintegration paths for the inmate population. However, it is important to give some context of how this social business came about.


RESHAPE is a Private Institution of Social Solidarity, which works with people who are or have been imprisoned and their families. The Portuguese prison system currently has about 11,000 people in prison and it is estimated internationally that 7 out of 10 people commit crimes again after being released, the so-called criminal recidivism (this data is unfortunately not published in Portugal). Imagine what it would be like for 7 out of 10 children who go to school not to learn to read and write, or 7 out of 10 people who go to a hospital not to see their problems being solved. I think that as a society we would demand better results. That's what we at RESHAPE do. We work to improve the system and to create tools for social reintegration that don’t exist in our country. Another very important factor to consider, is that it is known that there is a strong and direct correlation between the unemployment rate of people who have been in prison and the recidivism rate. People that leave prison are 50% less likely to reoffend if they have a job on release.

Thus, employability has been a major focus of RESHAPE and it was in this context that we began to think about what kind of social business we could launch that would work on several objectives in parallel and improve the social reintegration of people who are or have been imprisoned.

First, we wanted to create a social business that was b2c, that dealt directly with the end customer.That is because for us it was very important that society in general began to become more and more aware of this issue and get to know the challenges that the social reintegration of those who are in prison has. 

Social reintegration can never be the ultimate responsibility of any government, it must be the responsibility of all of us, of the local communities. Therefore, a utilitarian or decorative ceramic product would be a good way to bring the “prison system” into people's homes. Each piece carries a life story. Each piece to be used in the Portuguese homes is a piece that not only tells this story but also sparks conversations about the prison system. There is nothing better than a ceramic piece, a traditional Portuguese piece, to carry stories and concrete challenges. We want to make each of the Portuguese families an ambassador family for the cause and sensitize to this social problem as well.

Second, we wanted it to be a business. In other words, we wanted to demonstrate to other companies (not only in the ceramics sector) that it was possible to do business with the enormous talent that is being wasted in our prisons. In addition, there are immense infrastructures and potential that can and should be explored in a prison environment. Thus, we would be using two resources that are usually wasted - human resources (which are stuck, but full of talent) and infrastructure resources that are empty and useless at present. It was in this sense that, for example, we found in Caxias Prison an old deactivated pottery that with a minimal investment became operational again. This objective is more ambitious, but what we want is for all companies in Portugal to stop looking at the criminal record and start looking at the person, their potential, and their talents. One of the great mottos of RESHAPE is that every man is greater than his mistake. And who among us has never made mistakes? Should we be judged and persecuted all our lives for a mistake made in the past? When we were only 20 or 30 years old? We truly believe that all industries lacking skilled labor should look at this opportunity that lies in all of our hands.


Last but not least, we wanted it to be a productive process, that the result was not immediate and that in the end we had a physical product. Ceramics have a lot of time-consuming and complex processes, and in the end, due to a series of external factors, many things can go wrong.

This type of trial-and-error processes, of repetition until perfection, even though we have (in theory) done everything well, are the most pedagogical there are, and bring immense analogies to our lives. How many times have we not done everything well in our life and yet it seems that everything goes wrong, or that we are unlucky? Learning to integrate the defeats and difficult moments that we all go through is essential for a successful social reintegration and back into society. Hence, ceramics through the transformation of the raw material, which takes time and even then, may not turn out well, brings us very powerful messages of life for those who work with clay. Ceramics have the power to transform lives and make our communities and neighborhoods safer.

However, it is not enough to put people who are or were imprisoned producing utilitarian and decorative ceramic pieces for us to be able to guarantee a successful reinsertion. That's why we developed our own methodology, which we called the reshape methodology, which is a holistic process that works with the various dimensions of each beneficiary's life. First, we always start with social skills development training (RESHAPE Academy program). We all need to work on emotional management skills, communication, mutual help, and team spirit (not just those who are in prison). Then follows a phase of transitional employment (which begins inside the prison and continues outside) in the reshape ceramics production units. We have two production sites (inside and outside prison) to allow this ceramics job to also be a smoother transition to freedom. And finally, through the NGO’s socio-labor integration office, we work with dozens of companies available to integrate these people, as they know they are committed, hardworking and willing to seize an opportunity.

We still don't know what social impact Reshape Ceramics will have in the medium/long term, but we do know that the message it is passing and the process it is creating is having a huge echo in our society. We believe in the power of business to create social value and we believe that the ceramics industry can play its role here, and that’s why we have launched Reshape Ceramics.

Duarte Fonseca

CEO Reshape

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