Art and peace in Mexican prison

Chetumal, Mexico

Douglas used to be a scuba diver, but now he makes furniture. His workshop testified to his genius at reproducing pieces his clients had seen in photos or retail shops: tall, graceful armoires; coffee tables with a satin sheen; chairs and tables crafted from mahogany, cedar, rosewood.

He teaches others his skills, and their works also filled the shop: a cradle waiting to be rocked by loving hands, display cases for high-end stores, desks where bosses would one day preside over meetings.

His students had learned well, but then, they were a captive audience. So, for that matter, was Douglas.

I found the workshop in the southern Yucatán town of Chetumal in the state of Quintana Roo, about half an hour from the Belize border. I immediately recognized the concrete block, the barbed wire, the guard towers and fencing as a prison. I approached the guards and asked whether the facility sold prisoner art.

It did.

Some travelers shop for designer clothes. Others haunt china shops, jewelry stores or load up on cans and jars of exotic foods. My passion is prisons and specifically their art.

As a longtime volunteer in a juvenile detention center, I knew that prisoners were highly creative, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- their surroundings. Art, prose and music provide the escape, albeit mental, they need.

In my peregrinations, I began to visit prisons to ask whether they sold prisoner art. Often they did, and I would buy a piece or two -- Christmas cards, a key chain or an etching on leather -- because I knew what the inmates earned would usually help support their families.

In some prisons, there is contact with the artists and in others, the work is sold in a shop by prison personnel. I have always felt safe and fascinated, rather than fearful.

No violence. Really

At the entrance gate the guards at Chetumal asked for identification, and as I handed over my driver's license, I saw a man standing in the run-down reception area. It was the director, Victor Terrazas Cervera. I told him, in kindergarten Spanish, that I was an American journalist, and he invited me to his office, from which he presides over a medium-security facility with 1,100 inmates in for rape, robbery and murder, among other crimes.

The small office with its large wooden desk was full of cartons of prisoner-made art. When I admired a shiny wooden duck head that rested on a rectangular wooden box, he showed me that the duck's neck was a nutcracker.

"A gift," he said. I thanked him.

When he told me there had been no inmate violence there in a decade, I laughed.

"Really," he said. "You can ask my assistant."

A baby-faced guard in civilian clothes who had entered the room concurred. "No violence," he said. "Nothing."

The director sensed my incredulity.

"Come with me," he said, "and I will take you on a tour."

I followed him and his assistant down the stairs and into a vast open courtyard with grass, plants and trees. The yard was lined with ramshackle buildings and cement pavement that ran through it like a sidewalk through a park. Terrazas and his assistant, both unarmed, walked easily down the path and greeted the inmates.

Men materialized from nowhere, all in street clothes, and introduced themselves to me. A few spoke English and one, Jorge, told me he grew up in New York, as I had, and he certainly had the accent to prove it. The inmates told me they played soccer, had sports teams and studied English. I looked at them skeptically.

"Come on," they said, as they guided me to a library with books in English and Spanish and a bank of computers.

"We can take classes in French and Japanese and IT yes if we want to," a prisoner told me.

Everywhere we walked, every time we turned a corner or headed down another path, inmates appeared, cradling their arts and crafts in their arms and offering them for sale. There were bracelets made from chunky wooden beads, leaping dolphins, crouched frogs and placid turtles sculpted from tropical woods, delicate rosary beads, inlaid jewelry boxes, wooden miniature boats, ballpoint pens encased in colorful bead work. Some of the work was roughly hewn, and some pieces were finely wrought and sophisticated.

Other prisoners circulated, selling visitors and other inmates aromatic food from their native countries -- China, Brazil, South Korea, Spain -- and some of them even maintained booths, as though they were vendors at a street fair.

Prison chic

Jorge whispered to a young man who handed him a purse made of colorful printed shrink wrapping from plastic soda bottles. I had recently seen a bag like this in a chic Paris store for $125.

"How much?" I asked.

"Seventeen dollars," Jorge said. "Or you can pay in pesos."

I bought the bag.

I was carried by the wave of prisoners into a room; there were two massage tables where reiki and Swedish massage were offered by the inmates for a few dollars.

But there was no time to relax because there was more to see. At one studio we saw the works of Alfonso, who made and sold paintings and sculpture. His portrait of Benito Juárez, Mexico's national hero, hung in Terrazas' office. One of his canvases depicted two lemon-yellow jaguars circling each other. He held up a foot-high wooden sculpture of a woman's torso; her face had a look of reverent sorrow, and her long arms reached across her slightly swollen belly.

Elsewhere, inmates worked at wooden looms, maneuvering small shuttles weaving bright swaths of yellow, orange, red, black, blue and purple nylon into high-quality hammocks. Here they sell for $50, half of what they sell for in the U.S.

I followed Terrazas into a two-room area where the walls were adorned with still lifes and portraits and shelves burst with mosaic vases, wooden crucifixes and Ferris wheels fabricated from pieces of scrap metal and soda cans. Plump piñatas and wire mobiles floated from the ceiling. Everything was for sale.

Back home in the U.S., the duck-head nutcracker and the purse are on my coffee table. There's a story in the newspaper about violence in a U.S. prison, and I wonder what would happen if U.S. prisons were run like the one in Chetumal. Would criminality be transformed into creativity?

I smile, I sigh, I hope.