Hey, Where’d You Get That Pretty Purse?

“Oh, it’s just an old thing I picked up in the prison yard”
BY: REN DRAKE HILL

What would you do if you were falsely accused of fraud and sent to a Mexican prison? Jorge Cueto put a positive spin on  his 11 months of incarceration by creating a successful entrepreneurial venture now, (after three years), employing over 240 inmates locked in the stony lonesomes of Mexico.

Once an inmate of Jalisco’s Puente Grande Federal penitentiary, Jorge found himself in need of a small satchel in which to keep his glasses and notebook. Finding himself asshole to elbow with an assembly of tattoo artists and leather artisans, he purchased a piece of leather, gave it to a tattoo artist and asked for a design. He then forwarded the leather, decorated with a phoenix, to a craftsman who created a bag per Jorge’s specifications. The satchel was so well-received that three more were immediately crafted.

By the time Jorge was released (after having amassed 650 leather items), 40 inmates of Puente Grande were involved in the leather bag production, relying on this as their sole source of income. Mexican prisons do not provide food, water, or any comfort items, you have to have your people bring those things to you. If you have no people, good luck.

Now known as the Prison Art Project, or Proyecto de Arte Carcelario, prisoners around Mexico now create products for men and women, including leather wallets, bags, purses, belts, and more. The leather is tooled and stamped or decorated in color or black-and-white. Patterns include Mexican traditional, nature, skulls, flowers, and a traditional if trite by now favorite, Frida Kahlo.

Because the products are created by hand, technically each is one-of-a-kind. The average price ranges from $200 to $400 (U.S.) for most purse-bag items. The Iber-American University provided aid to the guys by helping them to create their prison art logo.

There are several brick-and-mortar stores that carry the products, notably in Mexico City, the Cancun airport, plus the cities of Miguel de Allende, and Playa del Carmen. Five more stores are immediately planned for Mexico, with the only Baja site located in Los Cabos.

Future expansion includes sites in the United Kingdom, Italy, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Denver. An extensive online store offers many articles, including T-shirts crafted in a small factory near to Puente Grande prison, which employs some of the prison’s former inmates.

Their online store does the most business, accepts American dollars, and ships worldwide. Prison Art has their own website (www.prisonart.com.mx),  and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ Prison Art).

The prison artists and craftsmen earn decent wages, averaging about $310 U.S. per month, but inmates can earn as much as $600 monthly; more than the guards that govern them. Money is distributed to everyone involved in the production of the goods, from artists to craftsmen, to the online and “outside” sales force. Some profits are re-invested into the company. Jorge is continually motivated to help the incarcerated into an artistic life and away from a life of crime.

Not everyone is accepted into the program. Each inmate must attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and send a large portion of their earnings to their families. One of the teachings of the program and the prison is that families are a necessary responsibility and must be cared for.

These are feel good items to buy. Jorge reminds customers that they are contributing to a social reinsertion program. Maybe American prisons should take note of this positive program of rehabilitation.