Ariana Farro

A group of female inmates traded in their prison stripes for evening gowns this week for one of South America’s most unusual fashion shows.

With government officials and fashion industry reps cheering them on, 19 incarcerated “models” from Peru’s Santa Monica jail strutted their stuff on an improvised catwalk in a Lima convention center.

INPE Peru

For about an hour, the women – including several foreigners serving jail time in Peru— modeled sparkling gowns, summer dresses, and stylish tops that were stitched together by their fellow inmates, with the oversight of local designers.

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“The idea is to give people a taste of what is going on in prison,” said Sharina Vargas, a model who helped produce the show and taught inmates how to parade down the catwalk.

“We are working so that prisons are not a problem [for society], but a solution to our problems,” added Julio Magan, the director of INPE, Peru’s national prison service.

Like elsewhere in Latin America, Peru’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, stuffed with nearly 40,000 more inmates than they were designed to hold, according to the prison service.

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But the correctional agency is trying to improve the quality of life at its prisons by teaching inmates a variety of job skills. At the Santa Monica jail, that includes workshops on fashion design, sewing, carpentry, weaving and baking.

A female prisoner models at the prison's bakery workshop
Ariana Farro

Tuesday’s fashion show was sponsored by INPE and was accompanied by a photo exhibit of the inmates modeling glamorous clothes inside the prison. The photographs, snapped by Peruvian fashion photographer Ariana Farro, show the inmates posing inside Santa Monica prison’s different work spaces, from the bakery to the sewing workshop.

The gowns for the prison shoot were provided by Peruvian designer José Zafra
Ariana Farro

“I made this exhibition because I wanted to show people what happens inside my country’s prisons,” Farro told me. “Even though these women are locked up, they are still goddesses fighting to learn new things at the prison’s workshops.”

At one of the prison's workshops inmates learn how to make stuffed animals
Ariana Farro
The prison also has a carpentry school
Ariana Farro

Both events, which coincided with International Women's Day, are part of a five-day trade fair called “Productive Hands,” where the government allows prisoners to showcase their skills and sell their products to the public.

Inmates also learn how to weave Alpaca products
Ariana Farro

“Study and work are the routes through which inmates can change their lives,” Magan said during the show.

And how to become beauticians
Ariana Farro

“Hopefully when these women leave prison, the companies that they are making things for will be amazed at their capabilities and give them job opportunities,” Farro said.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.