Iguana wallets and handbags may soon be coming to a store near you, handmade by prisoners in Cayman.
Northward prison has enlisted the talent of a craftsman from Guyana to teach inmates the finer points of tanning and leather working in the hopes of giving them marketable skills upon their release.
Colin Bollers, who operates a Guyana-based business called Jochelle’s Magnetic Craft, is spending three days this week working with a volunteer group of inmates on beginner-level leather work. Later this year, the prison hopes to build a tannery and to expand the class to a larger group of students.
“One thing we’ve always got is space here. And we always have personnel,” Cayman Islands Prisons Director Neil Lavis said of the latest jobs-based initiative at Northward.
“It’s giving prisoners an option, something to break the cycle. They can say, ‘You know what? I can do this and not have to turn to crime again.’ That knock-on effect makes Cayman a safer place to live, which is what we all want, really.”
Mr. Lavis said the prison has an old goat pen that can be converted into a tannery, and he also said that having a learning and working routine is good for the inmates.
The prison director envisions a line of products made from local material, and iguana skins are plentiful and potentially available free of cost. The green iguana is an invasive species in Cayman, and the Department of Environment has sponsored a cull designed to keep the population of the pest in control.
Northward has also experimented with an instructional course in construction skills, and that program will move into its second phase in September. A group of inmates built the shell of a building on the grounds of Northward, and the next stage will involve installing electricity in it.
The initial investment for the leather-working program comes from the prison’s budget, but eventually, Mr. Lavis hopes it can be monetized to fund other rehabilitation programs at Northward.
“There are things out there that we need money for,” he said. “We haven’t got the money. But if we can be smart with what we do here, we might be able to generate some income and get some grants.”
The idea for the leather-working program came from civilian Supriya Bodden, who lives in Cayman and runs a charitable trust called The Guyana Foundation in her homeland. Ms. Bodden said her charity aims to teach skills to citizens who can then turn their knowledge into a thriving career, and she said that if it’s been able to work in Guyana, there’s no reason why it cannot work here in Cayman.
“What we noticed is when we reached out into the community to people and offered them [skills], it turned their lives around,” she said. “They were able to use those skills that they managed to get and some of them now have their own businesses and they’re moving ahead. I’d like to see Cayman not have to go through half of what we went through in our country. I’d like to see Cayman past that stage.”
Ms. Bodden is opening a store called Handmade With Love in Cayman that will sell leather goods and other handiwork, and she hopes to stock it with work from the prisoners at Northward. But most importantly, she hopes the inmates will learn a trade that can give them a whole new life.
“We hope this project will take off in a big way,” she said. “We hope the tannery will be able to supply other Caymanians who want to buy leather to continue the craft. We hope that the persons in here can begin to produce. We’re positioning ourselves in this company we’ve set up in Cayman to buy back from the prisons and to make their products available through our store. I don’t see any downside.”
Enter Mr. Bollers, a master craftsman who has been working with leather for four decades. The first task for the inmates was to make a simple key ring, which involved making a template and cutting the leather to fit it. Tanning and crafting the leather is a tutorial that will come later in the process.
Mr. Bollers, the son of the former chief taxidermist for the Guyana National Museum, said that compared to cow, working with local iguana would be a much easier material. Cow is much heavier, he said, and it would take a lot more time and energy to lift it, work it and to process the skin.
Iguana, by contrast, is lighter and supple and easily obtainable. Mr. Bollers has crafted goods from snakes, and he said he’s looking forward to working with iguana. The craftsman is also looking forward to working with inmates because he feels that learning can profoundly change their lives.
“There’s something going on out there in society that’s causing people to be here. Maybe they just don’t know what to do with themselves,” he said of his new volunteer students. “I’ve known that some of the best tailors in Guyana learned their skill in prison. I’m very thankful that I’ve been given this opportunity. Everybody has talent. Everybody has skill. It’s just a matter of guiding them in a direction.”