Cellblock Creations


 Eager to help ex-convicts stay out of prison, a Jackson woman sells their art online 

By Jo Mathis
Legal News
When Lynn Brown moved back to Jackson in 2000 to live close to family, she was surprised by how much her hometown had changed.
Unemployment had risen and much industry had closed.
“The prison was the state prison at the time, and the prison had farms and did textiles and all these things that supported the prison, too,” she said.  “So as people left, the ones who tended to stay worked for the prison, worked for the county, worked for the hospital, or were in prison. And then their families relocated to Jackson to be near their family member who was in prison.”
That means a lot of people are affected by the state correctional facilities in Jackson, she said.
“They come out of the prison system and they have no jobs, no one wants to hire them, and with computers, everybody can check everything about you. So how do they get a fair shake?”
Brown got a job at a café alongside an ex-con who opened up to her about his struggles.
 “I have empathy for people,” she said. “I just listened, and never seemed shocked. And I’m not I guess, because everybody has a story. So I listened, and I was dumbfounded by the amount of things I’d never thought about.”
Two years ago, Brown met Judy Gale Krasnow, founder of Historic Prison Tours in Jackson. And soon Brown became a tour guide, too.
“Once I started giving tours, it really got to me,” she said. ““How does anybody come out of a system like this where you are basically in a cage like an animal, with all these people, and even be able to function anymore?” she asked. “You don’t think about what happens to people psychologically year after year. I certainly had never thought about it one way or another. The prison was always here. But on the tours, I’d meet people with such broad views. People who had deep compassion for prisons. And people who had deep disdain, and `They all should be killed.’”
“Everything’s deeper than you think. Everything’s bigger than you think.”
Then she told a friend of a friend that she’d just attended the University of Michigan’s Prison Created Art Project’s (PCAP) annual exhibit in Ann Arbor – the largest prisoner art exhibition in the world – and that she didn’t realize there was so much art done in prison.
“He said, `Oh, yes. Didn’t I ever show you this?’” she recalled, referring to some butterflies he’d made from cardboard and toilet paper. “I didn’t even know he’d been in prison.

People don’t usually come out and tell you they were in prisoners, but I guess because I didn’t say, `Oh, god! Prisoners! Ex-cons!’ he started showing me stuff.
 “I said, `I could sell these on these tours.’ I took some and sold some, and thought, `These stories need to be told with the art.’ The stuff they make while in prison they make out of nothing, and it’s the story they want to buy. People want the story with the art.”
So began Cellblock Creations. Artists earn 80 percent of the selling piece, with 20 percent into the CellblockCreations budget to keep the company running.
Currently, six “re-entry people” – five men and a woman – have sold their work through CellblockCreations.
One of the artists had been in prison for running over and severely injuring two motorcyclists while driving drunk.  He sobered up in prison, and now that he’s out, he says the best thing that happened to him was finally giving up alcohol.
“The biggest sadness in his life is he can’t contact the victims to apologize,” she said of the man, who works fulltime as a contractor. “He feels like he’s lived with that forever. That takes away his healing process … He’s a great guy, a wonderful father … If you met him on the street, you would never know.”
Giving ex prisoners a royalty keeps them out of the revolving door of the prison system, she said, noting Michigan’s high recitative rate.
“A lot of that is economics,” said Brown, who works part-time at Gramer’s Chocolates in Jackson. “I don’t know how you fix it by yourself. It has to be a whole big picture. And the thing I’m learning is that as I talk about (CellblockCreations), that’s what sells stuff. People want to get involved. My tagline became, `The art of starting over.’
That means the idea can spread into other areas and talents, so that the public can support the various talents of more and more ex-inmates.
Her CellblockCreations partner, Terry Hardrick, is an ex-prisoner who owns a detailing business. If she’s the least bit nervous about meeting someone, he can go in her place, or go with her.
And that helps her husband feel more secure, as well.
“I used to say, `This lawyer called and he wants me to go to the jail and meet this guy,’” she said. “And (her husband) would be like, `Really?’”
She herself has never been scared.
“Most everybody I’ve met who wants to do art is quite content to work on art, go to whatever meeting they need to go to, and keep balanced because they know if they don’t, they could go backwards,” she said. “I’m learning to gauge people. But I’ve also learned that when you show compassion and respect, they do the same back.”
Brown hopes nothing more than to establish the Cellblock brand so that more jobs are created, with people making and distributing T-shirts, mugs, and more.
“I’d love to say, `Yeah, we were a prison town, yeah, we have quite a stigma. But look at what great things our people out of prison are doing now.’”
To purchase artwork or learn more, go to www.cellblockcreations.com.   


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