Prison Art: From Mexico to the World

Jorge Cueto didn’t expect his white-collar desk job to land him behind bars creating prison art, but in 2012 — three years after leaving his former company — Mexican police officers nabbed him in a massive seizure of many company employees. Until his arrest, Cueto was a regular man, working an average, middle-class, usually uneventful job to support his five children.

The details of the dispute between his former employer and another company don’t matter as much as the fact their litigious squabbling landed Cueto a year locked up in Mexico’s Puente Grande prison — the penitentiary famous for housing high-profile inmates and that saw Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman stage an infamous break-out in 2001. 

Mexican Prisons are No Joke

It was a long year for Cueto. Mexican prisons are dirty, unkept, lawless places. Most every cell is packed with inmates like rats in a silo. Sometimes, he says he saw 32 men in a six-person cell, and even witnessed inmates sleep hanging on a harness from the cell door. Others slept in the cell’s single bathroom, sitting on the toilet, in the shower, or laying on the floor.

In some prisons, inmates have to pay to sleep in beds. In the most densely populated prisons, only one-third of the inmates are fed. What’s worse, they share their already crowded space with rodents and vermin, basking in the filth of the conditions the men call home. Running water is not permanent. And their homes are rife with abuse and corruption — many officers of the law work for drug cartels, and a 2017 report indicated that crime groups controlled 65% of the prisons in Mexico. Another report from the same year revealed that nine out of 10 inmates admitted to bribing prison guards.

Fights are common, too, and dozens of men die as a result of them every year. Many of the country’s 200,000 inmates live in these conditions for extended periods of time. 

Nearly half of the prison population is incarcerated as a pre-trial or remand detainee and kept there for years as a result of federal and state abuses of the pre-trial system. In 2014, sentences for kidnapping were doubled from 20 to 40 years as a result of the increase in crime. The sentence rose from 50 to 140 years if the convicted kidnapper murdered their victim, and kidnapping committed by a public-security official gets a 100-year sentence. The sentence for a federal crime is, usually, around 60 years. Comparatively, in the United States, In 2012, the average federal inmate spent 37.5 months in prison — double the average 17.9-month period in 1988. 

While imprisonment rates have dropped in Mexico in recent years by nearly 20%, this corresponds with a spike in the murder rate. The disparity, Mexican politicians say, comes from a U.S.-backed reform in 2008 that demanded a higher bar for evidence and increased police accountability.

Now, they say, police officers are inadequately trained on the new requirements and are therefore afraid to arrest people for fear of violating the rules and being held liable. So, there is an uptick in crime that directly correlates with the introduction of the new reform. In 2016, Mexican think tank Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo A.C. estimated that it would take the new legislation 11 years to function properly. Until then, though, things are out of whack. 

Considered elderly at 45 when he went to Puente Grande prison, Cueto got a more humane cell — an even luckier break given that an October 2020 report revealed that, for years, the Jalisco cartel controlled Puente Grande, which will soon be closed after reports of narco parties, escapes, and mysterious deaths. In May 2020, inmates fought, two guns were involved, three men were shot to death, four were beaten to death and nine more wounded. 

Tattoos As Life After Prison

Luckily, Cueto did not have to spend much time there. He proved his innocence in the company trial that sent him to Puento Grande in 2012 and was set free. But with five children to provide for, and that document making it difficult to find work, he came up with an idea. Inspired by the tattoo culture he saw behind bars, he started Prison Art in 2003, a company that allows formerly incarcerated persons to create high-quality fashion products 

When people get out of prison in Mexico, their prospects are bleak.

After their incarceration ends, the government issues a document explicitly stating they’re former prisoners, instantly branding them negatively, like giving them a Scarlet Letter.

Most Mexican companies require a clean criminal record for potential employees, and formerly incarcerated persons are required to present this document to an employer, which Cueto says almost instantly rules them out for most potential job opportunities.  

Employers, furthermore, don’t ask questions about the circumstances of a person’s arrest or imprisonment, but judge the form at face value.

“For people in prisons in Mexico, it’s hard to get a job,” Cueto told The News Station over coffee in New York City, where he was meeting with potential investors that could help him expand into the United States. “It’s almost impossible.”

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Now, about 200 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women are Prison Art employees, tasked with hand-making one-of-a-kind handbags, wallets, t-shirts and accessories, as well as handling the administrative tasks. They create genuine leather bags using techniques nearly identical to those used in tattooing skin, or they hand-chisel the leather to create an embossed effect. 

The “tattoos” printed on each bag are created by the inmates specifically for the pieces, and vary in size, pattern and design. Skull motifs are common, but inmates receive mood boards from Prison Art Staff every season to inspire them to create weather-appropriate items and designs.

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They are paid by the piece — with payouts ranging from $15 to $400 USD per item, though only the highest-quality pieces are selected to be sold in the five stores Prison Art operates in Mexico and Spain. Even the pieces that aren’t sold are paid for by Prison Art and used as training items for the inmates so their work can eventually end up in the store. Cueto also requires that each of his employees express an explicit desire to be a good person.

“I don’t care what they went to jail for — whether they’re a thief, part of a cartel, or whatever — I just want them to want to be better.”

Jorge Cueto

He pays them enough to live comfortably in Mexico without looking for supplemental income, but requires that they give 50% of their earnings to family members. To ensure this part of the bargain is upheld, he directly wires half of his staff’s earnings to their wives, mothers, daughters, or assigned family members. It’s his way of encouraging repair in the relationships.

The idea behind this practice is that returning to a solid family unit will disincline them to recede into criminal behavior. Only in the case of no immediate family members does the employee get the full amount of their earnings.

“This has been a requirement to be in the program, so everyone must comply with it,” he said. “The idea is to increase their self-esteem, avoid family disintegration and strengthen ties with the family to facilitate the reinsertion process.”

To train his employees and help them improve their tattooing and chiseling skills, Cueto and his administrative team (all of whom are liberated former inmates) give the inmates in eight prisons across Mexico — including the one he stayed at, Puente Grande — small pieces of leather to turn into accessories. As their skills improve, they graduate to larger pieces of leather and to more intricate detailing. Small pieces, such as a wallet or a card holder, may take a day or two to complete, but something like a tattooed tote or a chiseled backpack may take an inmate up to 10 days to fully prepare.

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The one-of-a-kind nature of the piece is vital to the company’s ethos.

“The main thing that Prison Art wants to change is the idea that society in general has, that all things made in prison are trash. It’s bad quality, it’s bad materials, it’s not well done,” Cueto said. “The idea was to challenge these ideas — high quality, high design, good products. We show people that these people are totally capable.” 

Prisoners as Artisans

It’s a jarring thought to conjure up — an inmate delicately and diligently hand-creating one-of-a-kind, intricate, detailed design — but it’s a reality that has changed the lives of many.

Day in and day out, men and women in prisons across Mexico lay a piece of leather, dyed for seasonal tastes, over a piece of wood. They set about adding fringes, zippers, and other details. Sometimes, they leave them without detail, creating high-quality bags that compete with traditional designer ones. Sometimes, they use a tiny chisel tool to create intricate patterns. Other times they tattoo the bags as they would a piece of skin, using similar techniques but different, stronger ink.

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They’re among the only people who use this tattoo method in the world, and they do it from horrifying conditions in a tiny prison cell. In Puente Grande, there are 12,000 prisoners and only 60 guards on each shift — morning and night — and corruption, violence and mistreatment run rampant.

Yet, surrounded by chaos, there are men inside finding peace in leather handbags.   

Cueto recognizes that allowing lengthy time frames and paying inmates by the piece for products he doesn’t use — in fact, he essentially destroys them if they don’t meet the quality he is looking for — is a business technique that drives his costs up, but it’s a practice he’s not willing to lose. 

More than that, he pays them fairly, which is an unheard of practice in Mexico. Most prisoners working 40 hours a week make around $100 USD a month, which is certainly not enough to live. But Cueto pays them according to the average cost of living in Mexico. It allows for the inmates to provide for their families, re-entering them into society and turning them away from a life of crime. But his quality bar allows him to compete with high-end, internationally recognized brands that operate at his price point. He is, after all, selling one-of-a-kind products. 

Prison Art has seen massive success, collaborating with tequila company Padre Azul and Swarovski for the limited-edition Padre Azul Cristalino Añejo tequila. The company has grown to accommodate nine storefronts across Mexico and is expanding internationally. The brand’s two stores in Spain, located in Ibiza and Barcelona, are seeing success, and allow Cueto to expand in the European market.

Cueto’s Spanish birth made it easy for him to choose his native land as a country to begin his European expansion, but he is far from done yet. By the end of next year, he says, he hopes to open stores in New York City, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, as well as continue to open European posts. He was given the Mexican Entrepreneur of the year title in 2019, has done countless talks to inspire other businesses to create positive change and is continuing to be recognized globally.

Prisoners as Examples

Prison Art is even being studied by the National Organization of Unions, held up as an inspiration for similar entrepreneurs with the hope of replicating it across the globe. What he needs, he readily admits, are socially conscious investors. 

Companies like his are popping up in Mexico and in various countries around the globe, but haven’t seen the same level of success in America.

He has a friend, for example, who employs incarcerated women to make small children’s toys. Then there’s Carcel, which makes women’s clothing in prisons in Peru.

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“In America, prisons are businesses,” he says. “If you have nobody in the jails, you don’t make money.” Essentially in the United States, recidivism pays, and rehabilitation doesn’t. 

In the United States, we see many cases of people being virtually discarded from society after they’ve been chewed up and spit out by the prison system. We see tales of innocent men and women, like Kalief Browder, suffering in prison for years on end, waiting for their low-income families to raise bail money. We see people like Cyntoia Brown sentenced to life in prison for killing their abusers, trying desperately to remove themselves from their circumstance. We see people spend years in prison for possession of marijuana, for petty theft, and for jumping turnstiles in the subway.

They make one mistake or, in some cases, are dealt a bad card, and society turns their back on them. It’s a lot like Mexico, really, without the blatant documentation. Browder’s story made national headlines, and his tragedy helped to make a difference in the prison system in the United States, but the country still has a lot of work to do. 

It’s inspiring, though, to see positivity and kindness come from an unthinkable ordeal. Cueto and Prison Art are a living example of beauty through pain, proof that there is still inherent goodness in humanity, regardless of politics, circumstance, or even prior instances. Cueto went to prison to find his calling, and he uses it to inspire others to find the light within them. In a way, he sees it as a blessing.

“If I look at my life today–if I had to go through the same things–get arrested, go to jail again, and do the things that I’m doing now, I would definitely do it again,” he says. “I now see many things that, otherwise, would have been impossible for me to know.” 

See more about Prison Art here.

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

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