Never mind running away -- these Brazilian prisoners prefer the fashion runway. The inmates of the Adriano Marrey penitentiary near Sao Paulo are part of a project using couture to help rehabilitate convicts and give them a chance to stitch together a new life.

"Yarn and the crochet hook are my new weapons," said Honorato Bezerra, who has been an inmate for four years. Here it's not mail sacks that the prisoners sew, but trendy dresses, beachwear, jackets and other apparel that all saw their debut this week on the catwalk at Sao Paulo Style Week (SPFW).

Their main technique is crocheting, which Bezerra first learned from a cellmate and now perfects in weekly classes with Brazilian designer Gustavo Silvestre. The work results in more than the daringly revealing dresses or baggy pants sent out onto the runway at SPFW.

"Crocheting helps us reduce our anxiety and to make time go by," Bezerra Said. About 120 inmates have worked under Silvestre in the Ponto Firme (Strong Stitch) project over the last two and a half years, with 19 contributing to the prisoners' first SPFW collection, featuring 45 creations. Nearly all of them are convicted of drug trafficking.

For all its cool and sexy elements, the collection made sure to remind the crowd where the couturiers came from, alternating the soundtrack with the sounds of slamming cell doors and other sounds that can be heard in prisons.

Well-behaved students

Silvestre, a fashion veteran who has been crocheting since 2008, comes to the maximum security Adriano Marrey prison with magazines and donated couture supplies.

In the facility's small cultural center, he sits with his laptop to give the students a tutorial. They start crocheting and clearly they've learned their lesson.

"No one does anything wrong here," Silvestre said in the well-lit, bright white room. "They make the most of everything."

Hooks and hands move quickly as the prisoners dive into their tasks, some crocheting, some cutting, others working with instructions. Two men, Thiago Araujo and Fabiano Bras, sit in a corner at the back working on carpet crocheting. They're the oldest in the class. Araujo is quiet and doesn't smile much. He's also busy, weaving a hat the previous day, finishing the carpet today and planning a dress for the next day.

"For ex-convicts it's very hard to get opportunities once you get out, so that's my motivation. I'm going to perfect my technique and when I'm out it will be my new profession," he said, without pausing with the crocheting. Bras is a specialist at weaving animals and characters from cartoons. "We'd like to have classes every single day," he said.

Gentler side

Adriano Marrey is a tough place. Like many Brazilian prisons it is hugely overcrowded, holding 2,100 prisoners despite having capacity for just 1,200. In most cells designed for six inmates, there are in fact 12.

However, the prison is clean and is proud of its gentler side that includes the fashion project and a visit in 2016 by the Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. That makes a change from the usual Brazilian prison news of riots and attempted escapes."We believe that art can change lives," said security and education officer Igor Rocha, who's been overseeing the facility's cultural programs since 2010.

"Before, I used to think that crocheting was something for grandmas. That was my opinion, but when I became tired of the criminal life, I joined the church group here and got interested. Then I came to this class," said Bruno Ribeiro, also working on a carpet. "I changed my life thanks to this and I'm glad to be part of something that will be followed by the people who come after us," he added.

For Bezerra, crochet work means everything while in prison. "Here I don't have to think about my freedom. Here I am free."(AFP)