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The Massachusetts Committing Institution Framingham, a medium security correctional facility for women offenders.
Photo: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Why Makeup Matters to Women in Prison

“We struggle to just stay human and maintain whatever kind of dignity we can there.”

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In 1908 guards stormed into a cell in Milan, tearing away bed sheets, flipping over mattresses, and yanking off pillowcases for a piece of contraband that had left the warden mystified for the preceding couple of weeks. The prisoner stood to the side, patiently watching her cell get turned inside out, her cheeks painted in cheerful red circles like a ballerina.

They were after her blush like it was a brick of cocaine.

No one could understand how she did it. While the compact wasn’t found during the ransack, the guards watched her closely and soon discovered her MO: The inside stitching of the prison nightgowns were made with red thread, and she would patiently pull them out one by one, soak them in water, and dab the stain onto her cheeks like rouge.

But that wasn’t the only beauty hack circling inside the walls of the penitentiary. To buff away a dull pallor, women made their own face powder by licking the whitewashed walls of their cells, chewing the lime dust to make a white paste, and delicately dabbing it onto their faces with their fingers. Another woman regularly broke the prison rules so she could be sent down to confinement, where she stole wire from a window grate to make a corset. But the question remained, from both the guards and the newspaper readers at home: Why? Why go through all that trouble if the women were separated from the public, with no regular visitors, no callers, and no one to see them but the others serving time?

The same question holds today. While commissary lists sell small-ticket items like foundation and lip gloss, inmates still DIY their own beauty supplies to make up for the limited options, using everything from Kool-Aid, to make hair dye, to melted Jolly Ranchers, for gel. But while interesting, recent reporting on fakeup hacks opened an important dialogue about incarcerated women and what we expect from the prison system, triggered by a seemingly small-potatoes question: Why should the incarcerated be allowed access to makeup?

Scroll to the comment section of these articles and you’ll see angry readers take to their keyboards, firing off opinions like “It’s prison, not a vacation,” or “They broke the law, they don’t deserve CoverGirl,” stressing the point that the penitentiary is meant to punish the people inside it, not give them beauty salons and mascara wands.

And therein lies the problem. Makeup is a much bigger analogy for other issues in our society and prison system. Is the point of incarceration to rehabilitate, or to break?

The history of compacts in prisons shows us that allowing women beauty products has had positive reintegrating results. Pin curls and shampoo signified salvation in 1958, when the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village opened a hair salon inside its walls. The parlor was opened to teach the women a skill so they could quickly rejoin society once they were released, and seeing how they were freed with an average of 25 cents in cash — or a little over two dollars in today’s times — preparing them for work was a common-sense policy.

But the need for salon chairs wasn’t just about money; it was also necessary to help fix a much deeper problem. Edith Imre, an owner of a successful beauty shop on 56th Street, was the one who advocated for the salon after she saw the conditions of the prison meant to house the 600-plus inmates. “No matter what she has done, every woman has a right to self-esteem,” Imre said. And that's what it's all about: not having a new dye job on the taxpayer’s dollar, as the naysayers say, but holding on to a sense of control and learning how to rebuild (or even discover) one’s sense of worth.

This is important when you look at the statistics: While men make up 93 percent of the prison population today, the women’s prison population has grown by 700 percent, rising from 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014. But since men make up the bulk, the entire system has been designed to handle their specific risks and needs, ignoring women completely. “I think of it as a system that was originally and primarily designed by men for men, to house a predominantly violent male population, for the most part. Many of the facilities were designed with that assumption, even if it wasn’t true,” Deanne Benos, founder of the Women’s Justice Initiative, says.

The WJI works to address the lack of gender-responsive practices for women throughout the criminal justice system, acknowledging that while men and women are equal, they’re differently situated, meaning that the policies and reforms that work on men won’t necessarily work on women. But, suffice it to say, they have their work cut out for them. “Largely, the rules and policies and staff are predominantly male,” Benos says. “And any forms of misogyny and bigotry in our society just realizes itself in spades in a setting of command and control like a prison.”

Inmates watch TV in the converted day room at the California Institution for Women in Chino, CA.
Photo: Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Which is why women, and particularly women of color, are consistently ignored in the conversation of criminal-justice reform.

Race is a relevant factor: While the rate of African-American women in prison has been falling, and the rate of white women has been increasing (rising by 56 percent), women of color are still unfairly impacted. Black women are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white women, even though they only make up 12.7 percent of the female population, with white women making up 61.7 percent.

And while most of these women are behind bars because they broke a law — which is why so many people react with a battle cry when they hear inmates are offered Maybelline while serving their time — most people don’t realize what we’re actually doing is criminalizing survival. Almost 90 percent of women in the system have experienced sexual abuse and violence, and most during their childhoods. Their past puts them on a direct path toward incarceration, so much so that Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) called it the “survivor-of-sexual-trauma-to-prison pipeline.”

To look at the breakdown, an overwhelming 86 percent are sexual abuse survivors, 60 percent experienced caregiver violence, and over 90 percent of women who were convicted of murdering a partner were victims of partner abuse. Then take into account that 32 percent have serious mental illnesses and 82 percent suffer drug or alcohol addiction, which oftentimes was used to self-medicate in order to cope with the side effects of their past. These statistics create a domino effect that’s hard to ignore: Those with histories of abuse are 77 percent more likely to be arrested than women who did not suffer that kind of trauma.

Knowing this, we then throw these women into a setting that could trigger their past and PTSD — where they’re put through strip searches and pat downs, have their movement restricted, get verbally torn down, and are disciplined by looming male authority figures who trip violent memories.

Rehabilitate, or break?

The reason so many women reach for makeup while confined isn’t just to feel pretty, but to rebuild their self-worth and to feel like they have some sense of choice. Especially considering how choice was taken out of their hands throughout their history. Using pen ink for mascara has a deeper psychological basis than we’re giving it credit for.

“We lost so much, and most women in the penitentiary have been abused and traumatized for most of their lives,” Monica Cosby, who was incarcerated for 20 years and is now a prison-reform activist, shares. Not being able to put on makeup feeds into that abusive loop. “Having someone have that degree of control over you — deciding whether or not you can wear makeup — is a power dynamic of taking choice away, and it’s abuse.”

While makeup won’t solve these deep issues, the need for it behind bars is a mental, not a physical, one.

Which is why history is full of women pulling the same fakeup moves. In 1946 Ottawa, incarcerated women picked out prison books in crimson binding, soak the covers, and use the red stain as blush or lipstick. In the 1970s in Bedford Hills, women improvised makeup by dipping a finger into toothpaste, rubbing it on a colored picture in a magazine, and using the pigment as eyeshadow. Another fan favorite technique was using melted black shoe polish as mascara, and mixing Noxzema and coffee to make liquid makeup.

Benos points out that on the outside, society teaches women they have to be beautiful to be worth anything, and then once they’re in prison, we mock, demoralize, and punish them for trying to keep to that standard. “It’s just like a trick,” she says. “We send these messages to them in public, we fail them when we don’t stop patterns of abuse, then we criminalize their arrival, and put them into a setting where we don't allow them to practice the self care that will ideally help them when they return back to society, to their families, and to our communities.” In response to the people who feel like prison shouldn’t be “soft” on inmates, she stresses, “You’re putting people further into the system.” Rather than preparing them for a second chance, we’re ensuring they’ll got through a revolving door back into the penitentiary.

Prisoners at Maryland’s Correctional Institution for Women talking to Stephen Moyer, Secretary of the Maryland Dept of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Photo: Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

In Benos’s studies, she received regular reports from staffers and inmates alike on how the system works to damage rather than rehabilitate. “When Logan in Illinois was converted into a women's prison, they herded the women together in buses from the other prisons and lined them up outside,” she says. “A high-level source shared with us that the person that was in charge of the lines that day was lining the women up saying, ‘You women are nasty; you’re just a bunch of smelly whores. You’re disgusting.’ Constant words that challenge your self-esteem.”

There was a reason why women licked the paint off of walls for concealer or crushed pencil crayons into lotion to create foundation. “Letting us wear makeup or letting us not wear makeup is just part of the bigger issue of our humanity being recognized,” Cosby says. “The more you dehumanize someone, the less human they become. We struggle to just stay human and maintain whatever kind of dignity we can there.”

Sometimes, these acts of dehumanization happened when penitentiaries would take men’s prison policies and paste them on top of women’s facilities, not caring that people from different ends of the gender spectrum respond very differently to procedures.

In men’s state prisons in Illinois, for example, hairstyles like braids and dreadlocks were banned because they were thought of as a place to hide contraband. So when a Chicago prison was flipped in 2013 to a women’s penitentiary, they decided that women who had those hairstyles could not wear them if they wanted to see their children, visit family, or go to court visits. In one case, a male officer forced a black woman to take her braids out to go to a court date, and he couldn’t understand why she broke down and began to cry hysterically.

“You know, prison is a choice,” he told Benos. “They came here out of choice, so they don’t get to choose their hairstyle; they don’t get those things. They made choices in life.”

“Of course there are choices in life that people have, but there are risk factors that are not a choice,” Benos explains. “Child sexual abuse is not a choice. The lack of social services and mental healthcare that might miss a young girl and her family, that might throw her into homelessness and drug abuse, isn’t really a question of choice anymore. The real choice is [that of] those in power to decide what is the most productive and humane way for the individual and for society and our communities to address these issues.” When you consider the fact that the officer could have just used a wand to check for contraband, it’s apparent these protocols are designed to degrade, not to protect.

It’s not surprising that the woman reacted as emotionally as she did; not when you understand the big picture. “You come from a position of no control in your life because you come from a setting of abuse,” Benos says, “and then the one thing that allows you to put on your face for the world — your coping mechanism — is your appearance, and then someone takes that power from you; it’s going to create a set of deeper mental health issue and behavioral issues.”

Talking about makeup in prisons isn’t just talking about eyeshadow palettes for sale at the commissary or having hair relaxers stocked on salon shelves. It’s about addressing the fact that a huge portion of our society is funneled into a pipeline that lands in a cell. We know this, but don’t implement the kind of policies that will help rehabilitate them toward a better life after their sentence. We take a hard-nosed stance on law and order, but there’s almost no conversation about how to help people re-enter society once they have paid their dues.

And reenter they will. In fact, 98 percent of people leave prison and re-enter society, coming to a neighborhood near you.

At the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, LaSonya Wells (left) and Karima Holloway listen to fellow inmate Gina Tatum talk about budget cuts to their rehabilitation program.
Photo: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“What kind of people do we want coming back?” asks Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog and correctional policy organization. “Do we want people who are even more broken when they came in? Or do we want people who had an opportunity to better themselves? To get educated, acquire job skills, training? But [who] also had an opportunity to work on the thing that was part of the problem that led them to whatever behavior led them to prison.”

Many Americans believe the point of the prison system is to hurt. But we should be more interested in outcomes. “I would advocate that as a society we stop being mad and we start being realistic and we start thinking about what it is that we want out of this system,” Vollen-Katz says.

And this realization isn’t new. In a 1934 article in the Battle Creek Enquirer, the Michigan newspaper pointed out that the prisoner doesn’t stand a chance if “a system is imposed which tends to embitter rather than rehabilitate him.” The chaplain argued that the 1930s system was not only filling up prisons faster than they were being built, but also making hardened criminals out of the people “who could be rehabilitated to normal, safe, and productive lives.”

Knowing what we know, we have to ask ourselves: When will we start realizing it’s more beneficial to help rather than to hurt? And if we can’t relent on something as inconsequential as a tube of mascara, then when will we take action on bigger issues, such as abolishing money bail, which criminalizes the poor; challenging the school-to-prison pipeline; stopping the torture of the mentally ill in confinement; or objecting to the end of in-person prison visits?

And when we instead stomp our feet and yell “lock ’em up” at the most vulnerable among us, what, exactly, does that say about us a society?

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