Zara Stone is the author of “The Future of Science is Female: The Brilliant Minds Shaping the 21st Century.” Her new book, “Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Prison Plastic Surgery,” published by Prometheus Books, is available now.
Last year was a rough one for Joyce Pequeno, a 28-year-old inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon. Social distancing was rare, she said, and prisoners were dying. Her clemency hearing was postponed. Still, most days she dabbed on foundation, swirled eyeshadow across her lids and outlined her eyes with kohl.
“It makes me feel good, like a real human being — not just a number,” she said over email. “The cheap stuff they sell makes me break out, but it’s all we have (so I use it).”
Seven hundred miles south, Susan Ferguson, an inmate inside the Central California Women’s Facility, in Chowchilla, has an equally consistent beauty routine. “Getting my hair and nails taken care of is self-care,” she said via a letter. “Everyone is sick… it makes me feel normal.” But pandemic-related supply chain problems have created cosmetic shortages at prison commissaries.
Many inmates find comfort in cosmetics. Stripped of freedom, friends and family, makeup can help inmate retains a sense of identity and present themselves in the manner they choose, rather than as dictated by strict prison dress codes.
A cosmetology class in progress at Metro State Prison in Atlanta, where inmates practice hairdressing. Credit: Ric Feld/AP
“Women’s pathways into the criminal justice system are typically different than men’s, and their needs in prison are very different,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog, over the phone. Approximately 86% of women in US jails have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives, and 75% report mental health issues — histories that go hand in hand with substance abuse and coerced behavior.
Despite the potential psychological benefits, access to makeup in prisons has always been politically fraught. Viewed as frivolous or a luxury, offenders have historically been considered undeserving of such rewards. Cosmetics were outlawed in New York prisons until 1920, Nebraska prisons until 1924, UK prisons until 1946 and French prisons until 1972, when lipstick and powder were approved on the basis that “denying women the use of makeup may lead to personal neglect and psychological effects,” an American newspaper reported French authorities saying.
In 1998, Virginia’s department of corrections attempted to ban makeup, citing its contraband potential. Patricia L. Huffman, warden of Fluvanna Correctional Center protested the ban. “We’re providing an opportunity for women to become better at dealing with the world … a piece of that is how we look,” she told the Washington Post at the time. The cosmetic clampdown was rolled back.
“Not giving people the opportunity to attend to their appearance is just another way of dehumanizing and making people feel as if they’re worthless,” said Vollen-Katz, who views restrictive cosmetic rules as another example of prisons overstepping their bounds. “We’ve moved away from rehabilitation and become far more about retribution. Controlling women has long been at the forefront in the prison system.”
Over the decades, frustrated prisoners have taken creative approaches to acquire cosmetics.
In the 1920s, women inside England’s Holloway Prison scraped paint chips off their cell walls to use as face powder and dampened red paper to use as rouge. In 1929, women inmates in New Jersey surreptitiously used pages torn from prison library books to twist and curl their hair and “pencil(ed) their eyebrows with pieces of wood reduced to charcoal,” according to a local newspaper report. In the 1950s, wax paper became a hot ticket item when it was discovered that it could be melted down and used to straighten hair or give it shine.
An inmate in Brazil double-checks her beauty look before competing in a beauty pageant at the Talavera Bruce Women’s Prison in 2015. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The dining hall provided other resources. Women pocketed sticks of butter and mixed them with pencil shavings to create homemade mascara and eye shadow. In the 1960s, women used lightbulb shards to trim their hair into prohibited bobs (so-called masculine haircuts were forbidden).
Today, permanent markers have replaced charcoal, Kool-Aid doubles as hair dye, clear deodorant for blush and M&M’s are used in lieu of lip stain. Vollen-Katz is not surprised by these DIY hacks. “There is nothing quite like deprivation to cause one to innovate,” she said. “I think it’s about self-preservation.”
Research suggests that access to cosmetics reduces violence among inmates, a phenomenon credited to the heightened sense of self-esteem that attending to one’s appearance can bring. Studies find that inmates with a greater sense of self-worth also reintegrate better after serving their sentences. Even without this data, many penal reformers have seen access to cosmetics as beneficial.
In 1945, Lord Thomas Caldecote appealed the UK’s ban on beauty products at the annual meeting of the Police Courts and Prison Gate Mission, a charity that helped reintegrate ex-convicts into society. “Women are so lost without cosmetics that even in prison they feel a little more disreputable when cosmetics are lacking,” he reportedly argued at a police meeting. He managed to convince his peers and an experimental trial was instigated: each inmate allotted one lipstick, one box of powder and a jar of cold cream.
A view of a former political prisoner in Bangkok cutting off donated lipstick tubes to be melted down and recycled for female inmates. Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images
As prisons reworked their rules, approval to purchase and wear cosmetics often went hand in hand with arbitrary constraints. In the 1940s, women at the federal reformatory in Seagoville, Texas, were permitted blush, lipstick and clear nail polish — with an emphasis on clear. “Attempt(s) to circumvent this ruling by mixing lipstick with clear polish… didn’t work very well,” reported the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
In the 1950s, Canadian inmates were allowed powder and lipstick but not eyeliner or mascara, an approach also taken by New York’s Westfield State Farm Prison and Reformatory. “The girls were going overboard — we want them to look like ladies,” Westfield’s superintendent, Genevieve Meyer said to the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper.
Outside influences have often played a role in getting cosmetics to prisoners. In 1970 in Chicago, philanthropic millionaire W. Clement Stone developed a prison charm school. “We are going to get these women to think they have outer charm, (then) they can work on their inner charm themselves,” he told Sepia magazine at the time. This push was international. In 1973, a German social worker told Reuters lipstick and nail varnish helped prisoners “overcome a feeling of indifference and resignation.”
The growth of prison beauty schools also reshaped the narrative around cosmetics. The schools’ purpose was twofold: They aimed to improve inmates’ self-esteem and equip them with marketable skills. Anna M. Kross, New York City commissioner of correction appointed in 1954, championed cosmetology classes. The beautification business was a viable path to employment, she reasoned; in 1955 the US licensed around 500,000 cosmetologists, a significant jump from the 33,246 registered hair and nail stylists recorded in 1920 (cosmetology was not recorded as a single profession at the time). Since then, it has been shown that formerly incarcerated people who land jobs with growth potential find it easier to rejoin society and have significantly lower recidivism rates.
Kross’ early reforms included a makeover of the Women’s House of Detention, a bleak fortress-like building in Greenwich Village. The cells were refurbished and the bars painted pastel pink. Her philosophy: An improved environment lays the groundwork for change.
Prisoners getting their hair cut by fellow inmates, who are learning to be hairdressers at HM Prison Styal, England. Credit: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images
The beauty program opened inside the Women’s House of Detention in 1956, outfitted with curling irons, dryers and electric stoves where Black inmates learned to press, wash and wax their hair. They also received free periodic “moral building” treatments, and an additional treatment before court hearings. This was the first time in the New York City Department of Correction’s history that funds were allotted to women’s education courses (typing, sewing and culinary arts followed). The beauty salon was heavily oversubscribed; its 1965 tally included 2,420 manicures, 1,239 haircuts, 8,627 tweezed eyebrows, 4,427 bleaches, 891 dyes, 4,055 shampoos and 9,082 presses.
Today cosmetology schools are a familiar presence in women’s prisons. “We have a zero recidivism rate,” said Christie Luther, who founded the R.I.S.E cosmetology school inside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma, over the phone. “Eighty-five percent of our graduates are working right now — in (hair salons like) Supercuts, Great Clips, Sports Clips… many in management roles.” But the pandemic has slowed progress, Luther said. In 2020 her students missed 247 days of school. “They were devastated… they feel empowered in class,” she said. “The pink shirts (enrolled inmates receive pink tees) give them an identity, they’re trying to be individual in a sea of orange.”
There has never been an umbrella policy regarding inmates’ rights to access makeup in the US, nor are there any specific provisions for people of color. Peaceful requests to resolve this have been unsuccessful; in the late 1970s, male inmates at a correctional facility in Texarkana, Texas, petitioned the warden to stock commissary cosmetic products for Black inmates. The warden refused.
More recent attempts by inmates to guarantee access to cosmetics through legal channels have also failed. In 1993 Michelle Murray, a transgender inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Kentucky, filed a complaint alleging that denying her access to beauty products “necessary for her to maintain a feminine appearance,” violated her eighth amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The judge threw out her claim, declaring that “cosmetic products are not among the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” In 2014, a similar claim by Ashley Jean Arnold, a trans woman incarcerated in Virginia, was rejected after a warden claimed Arnold’s cosmetics might provoke sexual assaults or enable her escape.
An inmate has her hair washed as she prepares to compete in the 13th annual Miss Talavera Bruce beauty pageant at the penitentiary the pageant is named for, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2018. Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP
To some extent, the long-standing reluctance to provide inmates with cosmetics comes as no surprise, considering how often their basic hygiene needs are ignored. Women pay for menstrual products at most US prisons, often forcing them to make the humiliating choice between sanitary necessities or calls to their loved ones. “There’s something really wrong with taking people that exhibit a need for intervention and making life more uncomfortable for them,” Vollen-Katz said. As of 2019 only 13 states have legislation to provide pads, tampons and other menstrual products without charge.
This petty destruction of dignity illustrates the power the prison industry exerts over women’s bodies, explained Vollen-Katz. “Appearance factors into how women see themselves and think about themselves,” she said. “Cosmetics are not a basic health need, but in a system that strips people of identity, policies that tear people down is a mistake.”
While the right to rouge may seem insignificant when compared with other prisoners’ campaigning issues, it is indicative of how the system often fails to meet women’s physical and psychological needs.
These problems will only have been exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdowns, and even as supply chains get rebuilt, commissary shortages continue to plague prisons and jails across the US. However, for Joyce Pequeno, paroled earlier this year, such worries are a thing of the past. She follows the same beauty routine she had while incarcerated, but her acne-causing products have been replaced by hypoallergenic ones, and her skin — and outlook — is clearer.
“It’s really important to present yourself as put together,” she said. “But I’ve learned to be flexible.”