FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
It's the holiday season and you might be looking for just the right card to send a nice neighbor or your grandparents. Finding a good card can be difficult especially if that special someone is behind bars.
Attorney Terrye Cheathem knows that ordeal. After she had a hard time picking the right card for her jailed relative, she got an idea. She started a greeting card line Three Squares Greetings for those who can't come home. She joins me now. Welcome, Terrye.
Ms. TERRYE CHEATHEM (CEO, Three Squares Greetings): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Some people may think, oh, my gosh. This has got to be joke. How do you react to people who hear about your greeting card line and don't have an emotional reaction of empathy or sympathy, but just say, this is weird, this is stereotypic, anything like that?
Ms. CHEATHEM; My response always when someone says it's weird or stereotypical or thinks it's a joke is that that person, fortunately for them, has not yet gotten a telephone call indicating that somebody they know and love has been locked up.
CHIDEYA: When did you have a loved one enter the system, and tell me some of the difficulties you had perhaps in communicating with that person?
Ms. CHEATHEM: It was in late 2000. I had a relative get locked up for a short prison term here in California. And I was encouraged at that time to send him a birthday card in '01. And at first, I thought, I'm not going to send him a birthday card, he's in custody. And I thought, okay, I'll do it. Then I went to my local Hallmark store and looked for a greeting card, and I didn't find one that I thought was appropriate for somebody who was in custody.
CHIDEYA: So when did you decide, well, maybe I can do this myself?
Ms. CHEATHEM: You know, it's pretty much at the same time because at the same time that my relative was in custody, I was working as a legal adviser to the L.A. County sheriff. And in that capacity, I learned that inmates send and receive a large amount of mail.
And I started, that's kind of when the light bulb went off when I had the need for the card number one, and then also knowing having to go over to the jail for various reasons, that it made send and receive a considerable amount of mail and large numbers of visitors. So…
CHIDEYA: Give me an - I'm going to go give you, actually, a line from one of your Christmas cards. It's - you had the choice to be naughty or nice and you chose, dot, dot, dot. Oh well, now, you have to do your time. But Christmas won't be the same without you here. Stay safe, Merry Christmas.
Is that also meant to play with the question of emotion? It's funny, but it's also really kind of, like, uh-oh. I mean how do you choose how you target your messages?
Ms. CHEATHEM: What I typically do - some of the messages, this one is a little funny, a little bit because it's the holidays. And inmates, when they go into custody, they still maintain their sense of humor. And so this one basically is saying you kind of chose to do something that wasn't so nice, and now you're doing your time but still communicating the sentiment that you will still be missed on the outside at Christmas time and just letting the person know that they'll be missed.
CHIDEYA: How are you going about trying to market these cards?
Ms. CHEATHEM: Well, I'm contacting retailers. I am appearing on shows like yours. I've attended conferences because I have two lines of cards. One line can be sold inside for inmates to purchase in their commissaries or canteens to send out to their friends and relatives. And then I have another line, for instance, such as the Christmas card you just read that will go inside. So I'm getting retailers, and they're growing every day and the interest is growing, so that's what I'm doing.
CHIDEYA: Sales of goods inside prisons are big business. There are all sorts of different ways that people in the outside can send care packages with, you know, lotion, toothbrush, snack items. What have you learned about the whole business of the extras that people send to prisons? How do you work within that context?
Ms. CHEATHEM: What I've learned, just as you've said, is that is a huge business. And it's, I'll say unfortunately, because it is unfortunate, that our prison population is continuing to rise. But it is a large business and there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of contractors who contract state prisons and federal prisons and county jails all over the country and all over the world for that matter and they do provide all sorts of things.
Inmates can almost purchase, not almost, they can purchase a lot of what we can purchase here in terms of toiletries and snacks and that kind of thing to make their lives more comfortable. And I also learned that many small bookstores, I'm told that the larger retail bookstores do not ship books into jails and prisons, but smaller bookstores do. And those are the bookstores that are interested in carrying the cards because they already know they have a customer base who's sending books into jails and prisons.
And so when I approached them with greeting cards, they know their customers already are kind of in that mode in terms of communicating with their loved ones so.
CHIDEYA: Some people call the prison industry, the prison industrial complex. How does it feel to be a part of that complex, a part of the - on some small level of the whole economic penumbra around prisons? Does it make you sad in some ways that this is something that you're doing?
Ms. CHEATHEM: It makes me very sad. And that's one of the reasons, Farai, that it took me so long to actually launch the line. Because I didn't want to be seen as someone who is taking advantage of that marketplace. I generated the idea, forgot the idea back in 2000 and 2001. And it wasn't until this year that I actually launched it, because I knew there was an opportunity and I was given the idea. And when I say given, you know, by higher powers and I decided I should do something about it.
Because it really helps the friends and relatives of the inmates as much as it helps the inmates because they need to communicate difficult, often mixed and in addition to loving feelings. But the difficult and mixed feelings are the ones that are most difficult to communicate, and so that's what the cards are.
CHIDEYA: Well, Terrye, thank you for sharing your story with us.
Ms. CHEATHEM: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Terrye Cheathem is the founder and CEO of Three Squares Greetings. To learn more about her cards, go to our Web site at npr.org/newsandnotes.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.