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  • Imprisoned artists can reportedly make US$325 a month.

    Imprisoned artists can reportedly make US$325 a month. | Photo: AFP

Published 27 January 2016

A business that began behind bars is expanding across Mexico, with an eye toward the world.

A Mexican man has turned prisoners' creativity into a profitable business. Jorge Cueto sells leather bags with tattoo patterns that are crafted inside one of the biggest prisons in Mexico, an enterprise that has changed the lives of more than 200 people.

Cueto was in 2012 himself incarcerated at Puente Grande prison—from where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped last year—and soon realized there were few opportunities for inmates to work, and the opportunities that did exist were poorly paid. He organized a small-scale project with some of the tattooers who live inside that prison, as well as artisans that work with leather.

Photo: Manu Ureste

These men created bags and wallets, which they sold both inside and outside the prison. Cueto started with just four different patterns and a few workers, growing to a business with more than 40 employees by the time he was about to be released.

“They were happy because I was leaving, but worried about what would happen to them because they had a steady income,” Cueto told the publication Animal Politico. “At that point I promised them to make this work last.”

After serving his nine-month sentence, Cueto created the “Prison Art Project” and developed his registered brand, “Prison Art.” He now sells his line in stores across Mexico, employing 219 inmates that he says he pays in keeping with the standards of “Fair Trade.”

“So was born Prison Art, the ‘incarcerated art’ that seeks to expand to America, Europe and Asia.”

“Our workers can earn 6,000 pesos (US$325), there are even managers who get up to 11,000 pesos (US$595) a month. This means they can earn more than the custodians,” said Cuesto.

One of the rules to join the project is that part of the money earned must be sent to the prisoner’s familiy. Participants also have to attend support meetings for alcohol and drug abuse, if needed.

Photo: Manu Ureste

"After four years in jail when the inmates leave, their wives and children have abandoned them, they've lost their money, properties,” said Cueto. “And above all, they won't find any jobs because of their criminal record, and it forces them to fall back into the same situations that sent them to prison."

He believes the uniqueness of the patterns and the quality of the products will allow the business to expand to New York, Vegas, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London and Tokyo. He also wants ex-prisoners to be able to sell their own products in any of the stores.

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