Bag to Butterflies helps formerly incarcerated women spread their wings

Forty-five years ago today, Coleman A. Young was sworn in as the first African-American mayor of Detroit, his hometown. That same year, Tonya Carswell committed the first murder of 1974 in the city, when she was riding in a car and the woman driving pulled up next to a man. Carswell shot and killed the man and stole his wallet. She was just 21-years-old. She had just voted for Young in November 1973, who she said criticized her for the crime.

In his inauguration speech, Young famously spoke about ridding the city of crime and anyone who wanted to take part in it.

Carswell, now 66, was charged with second-degree murder and served 44 years in prison. Young has been dead for over 20 years now, and Carswell has a job making decorative handbags and clutches ranging for $75-$200 through the Bags to Butterflies program.

“I hated being away from my family, but I knew I had to accept the fact that I committed a crime and had to pay my dues,” Carswell said with a sigh, as she installed a screw into a purse and recollected on her time spent at DeHoCo (Detroit House of Corrections).

Carswell was released April 3, 2018 and wanted to put the past behind her, while looking forward to spending the holidays with her 90-year-old aunt who raised her, her son Verlyn, daughter Elnora, and five grandchildren.

She currently works in a small room tucked inside a multi-purpose building alongside the John C. Lodge Freeway with three other convicted murderers at Bags to Butterflies. But it is not what you think.

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A Bags to Butterflies purse is made of repurposed wood.

Bags to Butterflies was founded by Michelle Smart in 2015 and is a transitional employment program in Detroit where formerly incarcerated women design handbags for sale to support their salary and are offered mentorship. The program is nine months and the women are paid bi-weekly at a rate of $10 an hour, which is upped to $12 an hour after 90 days.

The organization provides support, resources, and a caring network to help empower women to redefine their life’s purpose, in hopes of reducing or eliminating recidivism. Bags to Butterflies also provides employees with financial management, health and wellness classes, as well as life coaching.

“Bags to Butterflies was a two-fold concept,” said Smart, who has never been to prison herself, but cares enough about the women she serves. “I have a very good friend whose daughter is currently incarcerated, serving 7-15 years in Michigan’s only women prison. During that time, I created handbags that were made for an art event and after learning of her fate, decided to empower women coming home, with jobs.”

While fulfilling their mission, the women of Bags to Butterflies handcraft exceptional and gorgeous handbags and clutches made from repurposed wood, leather, and high-quality textiles. Each handbag comes with a gift inside with a message about the designer, creating an emotional connection between the creator and purchaser.

Charlene Billups, 63, is one of the crafters at Bags to Butterflies. She served 41 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Seven people were killed at a blind pig spot in Detroit by her brother George. They were arrested, and the police said she was the mastermind behind it all. She was given life in prison in 1976. Billups said she never thought she would see the light of day again at just 20-years-old, until she was granted parole December 27, 2017.

Now she has a second chance at life, a new home, and a job, thanks to Smart. Billups was released two days after Christmas in 2017, so this past Christmas was her first time being able to celebrate and have a reunion with her son Juan, daughter Janine, and five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“I couldn’t believe how she would put these little screws into this wood and then she showed me how to do it,” said Billups, making a bag and telling the story of how she met Smart. “And after she showed me how to do it, she said ‘this is yours.’ She asked me did I want to work here, and I said yes.”

“I love it here. I love her (Smart). She is so respectful and sweet, and I adore her.”

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Bags to Butterflies crafter Machelle Pearson and fiancee David Walton were both juvenile lifers.

Unlike her co-workers, Leticia Molton, 40, did not spend decades in prison. But she did serve two years for manslaughter. Before she was released in September 18, 2018, she did not want to wait on a re-entry program to find her employment. She asked around about future employment, even when those in-charge of helping her seek a job would not assist her. But she remained persistent and was told about Smart and Bag for Butterflies. Her being proactive turned out to be the best decision for her return to society.

“I like everything about the Bags to Butterflies program,” said Molton, who was eager to get back home to her three children. “It empowers women and teaches you different things. I thought that when I got out that I couldn’t do anything but work at McDonald’s because I have a felony. But Michelle (Smart) has made me feel really good because I have a more professional job.”

At Bags to Butterflies, anything is possible. Finding employment, housing, friendships, mentorships, and even love. Machelle Pearson, 52, is one the bag creators. She was incarcerated for 32 years for murder and felony firearms. At the tender age of 17, she said it was a horrible experience. She was sexually assaulted at age 28 and she gave birth to a son. The conditions in prison were deplorable for her, including black mold, abusive officers, and spoiled food. She thought she would have to live the rest of her life in prison. But upon her release August 28, 2018, she now has the opportunity to spend the rest of her life with her fiancée David Walton.

“David is a good guy and very understanding,” said Pearson. “He’s a loving individual and if I call, he’s there. He has my back no matter what and his presence in my life means a lot.”

Pearson and Walton met in 2018 during a trip to Washington D.C. with the group “I Can”, which fights for justice for juvenile lifers. Walton, 61, also did time in prison, serving 42 years in for murder at the age of 17. He was brutally raped at 13, which affected his behavior deeply. The first 6-7 years of his sentence was spent in Jackson State Prison, which he recalled felt like he was in “hell.” But ever since he was released in 2017 and met Pearson, his life has changed for the better.

“On the second date I knew I wanted to marry her,” said Walton, whose eyes were trying to hold back tears, unsuccessfully. “When that person comes along, you just know. And I knew it. I looked at her and I said I love you, and I don’t want to do anything else. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

Their wedding is scheduled for March 15, 2019.


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