She Made Personalized Cards for Her Husband in Prison. Then She Realized Thousands of Prison Wives Would Buy Them.
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Danielle Macias never set out to be a stationery designer. Back in 2014, when she started her business, she was working full-time as a medical diagnostic scheduler and supporting her husband José through his 25-year prison sentence. They met as teenagers and married while José was incarcerated in Kern Valley State Prison, in California. Between visits, she wrote him love letters, decorating the envelopes and sheets of paper with simple designs. “I’m a horrible artist,” Danielle, 34, says. Still, a friend with whom she carpooled to the prison caught a glimpse of an envelope Danielle had prepared for José, 35. It was adorned with a cartoon image of a mailbox and the phrase “love letter” in a striking script. She asked Danielle where she had gotten this prison-specific piece of stationery, and Danielle told her she’d made it. She asked Danielle to make something similar for her, and True Blue Stationery was born.
“I didn’t go into this thinking I’d make a whole business out of my cards,” Danielle says, “but it took off pretty quickly.” She had tapped into a large and underserved customer base: There are more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, 93% of them men. And on the outside, there are millions more caring for them from afar, like Danielle.
I spent five years reporting my book Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons to trace the ups and downs of some of those couples. One of the many surprising things I discovered is how innovative prison wives can be when it comes to making their incarcerated partner feel loved and supported.
As a married couple, Danielle and José were able to have conjugal visits (California is one of just four states that enables private time for immediate family) but the vast majority of people in US prisons do not. A great deal of communication and intimacy takes the form of letter writing. With in-person visiting hours cancelled for months on end during the pandemic, those letters became even more precious. Inmates can’t accept gifts through the mail, so receiving a colorful envelope can be very meaningful.
“Made with love by your alibi”
Danielle designs her stationery with her consumers in mind: “These are not cards you will find at Walgreens,” she says. One card features hands enclosed in handcuffs that form the shape of a heart. On the back, another reads, “Made with love by your alibi.” One offers a simple message of encouragement: “ANOTHER DAY DOWN.” One of Macias’ most popular designs is a quiz for couples to fill out, specifying if he or she is more of a morning person or a night owl, their favorite childhood memory, their biggest regret, their weapon of choice in a Zombie apocalypse, and what guilty pleasures they enjoy. It’s a way to feel closer to each other, in the daily moments.
She makes clever cards for holidays, like one for Halloween that reads, “I’ll never ghost you baby. You’ll always be my boo.” A heartfelt Christmas card says: “All I wished for this year was for it to be our year. I prayed for a miracle. I wished for good news. All I wanted was for you to be home.” Some celebrate the seasons with funny, racy messages: Beside a cartoon candy cane, a Christmas card says, “Hurry home… it’s not going to lick itself.” Another commemorating a conjugal visit shows a five-star rating with the message: “Family visit: 11/14/2018. Excellent. Would fuck again!” She also creates personalized cards where people can have messages to their loved one emblazoned in rich detail with their photographs, names, and special messages. One reads: “A gentle reminder: Your past doesn’t define you and your current location doesn’t determine your destination. You are so much more than the worst thing you have ever done.”
Image credit: Danielle Macias
Danielle charges five dollars per card and runs monthly specials. She fills 150-300 orders per month and fulfills invoices on her lunch break from work and after clocking out. She has resisted putting up a website because she wants to be able to meet the number of orders she receives, and keep the personalized touch. The business has provided a healthy source of income, most of which she puts into savings, and uses to pay bills or reinvests in the business. “I’m not trying to get rich off of women like me,” she says.
Beyond the revenue stream of her business, Danielle has become an intimate part of her customers’ lives. Women will send her feedback from their incarcerated partners, saying they really felt her message in their hearts. “I’ve seen girls who got pregnant at a family visit and I’ve done their ultrasound pictures in their cards,” she says. “And now I see their kids growing up.”
“I love when I lose a customer… that means their loved one is home”
Danielle’s own story has become a source of inspiration to her clients, as her husband José was recently released from prison. Under the California state bill 1170(d), José’s great strides in his rehabilitation were rewarded. During the 12 years of his 25-year sentence for armed robbery he participated in recovery groups, earned his GED, worked towards an Associate’s degree in Sociology, served as a coordinator of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and started an accountability group during the pandemic when visits were cancelled.
With José back home and working as a landscaper, Danielle plans on quitting her day job to make True Blue Stationery her full-time gig. Even though she is relieved to put the prison chapter of her life behind her, she says, “I still want to stick around to follow the girls’ stories. It’s a dark place in there. If I can help a wife, mom, or sister bring a smile to her loved one’s face, then it’s worth it,” she says.
And she might be one of the only small business owners who relishes a small downtick in her invoices: “I love when I lose a customer,” she says, “because that means their loved one is home.”