Bags to Butterflies Employs Once-Incarcerated Women

The societal debt may be repaid and the shackles removed, but when a once-incarcerated woman walks out of prison, it’s often into a sea of uncertainty. Bags to Butterflies helps with the transition and aims to empower these women with a sense of purpose and self-sufficiency.

Founder Michelle Smart creates fashionable purses made from repurposed wood, and the women brought on are employed as designers and enter the organization’s nine-month transitional program.

Smart says, “The reason we use repurposed wood is because we want to demonstrate how something considered, or deemed, as having no value can be transformed into something new and something beautiful.” It’s a symbolic representation of the women themselves.

Smart had been creating pieces with glass but, in 2014, wanted to delve into woodworking. “Around the same time, I learned about my best friend’s daughter – who I’ve known since six grade. Her daughter made a split-second decision and now she’s incarcerated for the next seven to 15 years,” she says.

From there, the ligneous accessories took on a greater purpose. Two of the four women currently on the team were referrals from 80 Strong Community Outreach, a Detroit-based organization committed to aiding women recently released from prison and substance abuse programs. The others were referred by the Michigan Department of Corrections.


Leticia Molton is mum on the details that led to her incarceration but does say that alcohol and a subsequent bad decision played a role. She came to Bags to Butterflies four months ago and says it’s “helped me build my confidence. It just makes me feel like I’m special and I’m doing something great. When we go for our events and everything, it just puts a smile on my face, how the customers react to all of the bags and to know that we did this. It’s just a good feeling, completely.”

At 17 years old, Machelle Pearson was convicted of first-degree murder in circumstances involving an abusive boyfriend. She came home this past August, three days before her 52nd birthday. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot about togetherness, unity and love. It’s a loving environment.” When we meet, she ignores my outstretched arm and goes in for a hug instead.

When they were starting out, Smart says they organized focus groups, and many women complained of a lack of transitional programs geared specifically toward women and the creative. Bags to Butterflies aims to fill that negative space.

The women have free range of their colors and designs, and like true artists, they’re encouraged to consider their emotions when creating and to let those feelings influence the work.

She says, “I think it’s important that we as a community embrace the women coming home because they are our neighbors, our sisters, our cousins, our aunts, people that we know, and they need that support. We want them to be self-sufficient no matter what their past may be.”

Molton hopes to be a mortician and Pearson wants to be a motivational speaker for youth who come from tumultuous backgrounds or who may be involved in abusive relationships. Smart says those dreams and these women matter. “They can be transformed just like the wood.”

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