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For six months, Heather Packer, along with a team of 11 hairdressers and other beauty pros, has been trekking to New York City’s Rikers Island jail to teach cosmetology skills to women inmates.
Packer is a hairstylist and educator at the luxury Red Door Salon in New York City, where a haircut starts at $75. She’s styled hair at fashion shows and magazine photo shoots, as well as for celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lopez.
Rikers could not be further from that rarefied world. It is one of the most notorious jails in the United States, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to shutting it down by 2027. But there are still about 10,000 people housed there on any given day, about 7 percent of whom are women. The women are kept in the Rose M. Singer Center, the all-female wing. Nicknamed “Rosie,” it was the subject of a recent story in New York magazine detailing its high rate of sexual abuse, often perpetrated by guards.
Jails differ from prisons in that they are local and usually meant for shorter-term stays, for people awaiting trial, for those who can’t afford bail, or for people serving short sentences. But inmates at Rikers sometimes stay there for years at a time, and many can’t afford the large bail amounts set by judges. (The case of Kalief Browder, who took his own life after being in Rikers for three years for a crime he was never convicted for, brought a lot of attention to the conditions at Rikers.)
Packer says the women are there for anywhere from a few days up to five years. “The system does not support those who lack resources, whether that be money, access to legal support, or social service support,” she says. Through her program, Fearless Beauty, she identifies women who are interested in cosmetology and teaches them skills and instills confidence and a sense of community while they’re being held at Rikers.
The program does not count toward official cosmetology credits, so ultimately the goal is to assist in enrolling them into official beauty school programs with scholarships when they’re released, in order to teach them a bankable skill that can lead to a stable career and income. In New York City, Packer says beauty school costs about $10,000 and requires 1,000 hours (about a year of full-time schooling) in order to become legally eligible to practice as a cosmetologist.
Packer founded Fearless Beauty in 2014 after a trip to India, where she had been traveling for several years to practice yoga and meditation. For a few years, she ran programs with other stylist/educators there to teach women with few job prospects how to do hair. She was inspired to bring the program closer to home when a musician client told her about a recent trip to Rikers where she had performed for inmates and noticed a hair salon and classrooms in the facility. Packer reached out to the jail and heard back quickly from officials.
Ninety-seven women applied for the inaugural program in January. The warden deemed about half of the applicants eligible, so Packer and her team went to interview them. “We went from housing facility to housing facility and interviewed 45 women. It was one of the most intense days I’ve ever had,” Packer says, describing the environment. “There’s so much stigma. There are so many fears and questions.” She described the facilities as feeling like “an old public school” and saw communal rooms filled with sleeping cots. The women came to her with heartbreaking stories.
“One of the women said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a hairstylist, but I had to take care of my little brothers and sisters. So the only job I’ve ever had is prostitution.’ The tears sprang to my eyes and I was like, ‘Okay, don’t cry, Heather, don’t cry,’” Packer says. Another woman told her that she had been in a cosmetology program that got shut down because the school was embezzling money. Both women were accepted into Fearless Beauty. “We shook everybody’s hands, and they were shocked by that,” Packer says.
The program comprised two teachers and 15 students at any one time. They met for two-and-a-half-hour sessions twice a week for six months. Skills included wet styling, brushing and combing, learning about the anatomy of the head, roller setting and pin curling, braiding, and natural texture styling. After that came blow drying, updos, and hair color. Finally, students were allowed to practice hair cutting, a more advanced skill. (For security reasons, the team had to get all tools approved, and everything was counted before and after classes.) The program ended with skin care lessons.
In June, Fearless Beauty celebrated its first round of graduates. Thirty-nine women went through the program, but because the jail population is transient, eight finished almost all of it and five finished the whole thing. One woman is out of Rikers now, and Fearless Beauty is working with a cosmetology school to procure her a scholarship. Packer says that she is also looking into how to offer teaching hours to Rikers inmates that will count toward a license. She hopes to expand the program to other facilities, too, though fundraising is an issue. It costs about $20,000 per six-month semester to pay for tools, supplies, and “small teacher stipends.” The costs seem to be worth it, though, at least for one participant.
“She said when she first started the program, she was at the lowest point in her life. It was the first time in her life she had ever been sober as an adult,” says Packer. “She said, ‘But now, not only do I know that I want to be a hairstylist, but I know that I want to help other women.’”