By Isla Binnie
PADUA, Italy (Reuters) - White-coated bakers are chopping nuts, dipping pastry into liquid chocolate and hanging freshly baked panettone Christmas cake upside down to preserve its domed shape.
But when one of the all-male team steps outside to smoke, he is in a barred enclosure attached to Padua prison.
Sweet smells have wafted through this building since 2005, when the local Giotto cooperative opened the 'Pasticceria Giotto', which they say is Italy's only bakery inside a jail.
The cooperative says the re-offending rate among prisoners who work on their projects in Padua drops to 1-2 percent from a national average they put at over 70 percent.
The prisoners, serving sentences for crimes including murder, are keen to extol the psychological benefits.
"This work makes a person feel they have value, you get satisfaction from it. You develop creativity," said Davor, 49. "When you come in here you don't feel like you're in prison."
Of the roughly 800 detainees in Padua's Due Palazzi prison, 150 are paid to work on such projects, which also include a call center and workshops making suitcases and bicycles.
The bakery's signature delicacy is panettone, baked to a traditional recipe that takes 72 hours to make from a precise mixture of flour, butter, eggs and sugar that is enshrined in Italian law.
Shut off from the world, the prisoners are better able to concentrate on learning, said Elio, 62, as he pitched 2-kg (4.4-lb) slabs of butter into a mixing machine.
"There is less distraction. We don't have the chance to go to a bar or chase women."
Repeat offenders are a pressing problem for Italy, whose prisons are among Europe's most crowded and are costly for the state budget.
Work and creative tasks are the best treatment to prevent prisoners falling back into crime, said Gemma Marotta, associate professor of criminology at Rome's Sapienza university.
"As well as being able to leave jail having learnt a trade, it reinforces their self-esteem," she said.
The cooperative's president, Nicola Boscoletto, said the public response to the project was often negative in Italy, where unemployment is at a record high.
"But this is good for the pockets of Italians and for Italian security," she said.
"Every 1 million euros ($1.24 million) invested in rehabilitating prisoners by giving them real work, paid according to the laws of the market, saves nine million."
(additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Alessandro Bianchi; Editing by Gareth Jones)