Makeup in Lockup: Beauty, Power, & Danger in US Women's Prisons

Every morning, Candace Altman wakes up at 5:30 a.m. in a dark cell at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon. She washes her face with cold water, combs her hair, pats on foundation, and lines her eyes with the black eyeliner she bought at the prison commissary. In her last two incarcerations, Altman would roll out of bed and throw her hair in a messy bun. But this third time, in prison for another round of drug charges and scheduled for release in two years, she vows to get to work and never return.
“If there’s anything I’m good at, it will be makeup,” Altman says as she dusts a shimmery shadow over another inmate’s eyelids. Altman, 34, is training for a degree in cosmetology as part of Coffee Creek’s rehabilitation programme called Hair Design, a fully accredited programme. Each day, Altman gets to the state-of-the-art cosmetology room at 6:30 a.m. to learn about the latest in aesthetics, from hair cutting and colouring to makeup, eyelash extensions, and gel manicures. A few years ago, the space was just a small classroom, but it recently quadrupled in size to accommodate its popularity and the prison’s overcrowded population.
Altman practices on other inmates, women who are glad to have the small reprieve from the monotonous reality of prison life. She’ll do this 10 hours per day, four days per week, for two years. By the time Altman gets out of prison in April 2020, she’ll have a cosmetology license and will be ready for a new career. "Before this, I had no job prospects, I had no skills, I didn't have anything like that, and this is the first time that I have been here and felt like I won't come back," Altman says. “We want to get out and be good moms, have careers, and be reintegrated... We don't want to be that big bad convict woman, you know what I mean?”
While opening a beauty school in a prison might seem like a pat response to the growing problem of mass incarceration, rethinking a prison experience that was designed for men with women in mind is an urgent matter. In just two decades, the number of women in prison has grown by 700% in the US— bringing the latest count to over 220,000 nationwide— making women the fastest growing demographic going into the system. But programmes like Hair Design are known to decrease recidivism and divert the cycle of incarceration.
Which is why, increasingly, some prisons are leaning into beauty. “We all wear men's jeans and these terribly fitting blue T-shirts,” Altman says. “They take away all of your individuality, [so] taking care of yourself, doing your makeup, and fixing your hair, just makes you carry yourself better. It just helps your whole attitude about being here.”
The bigger issue, though, is that while Hair Design appears to be a success story, beauty programmes are run independently in each prison — and advocates like Tammy Kennedy, the Coffee Creek programme director, are few and far between. These programmes are on the rise, but without a centralised leader, the disparity between programmes is vast — and some opportunities are seemingly squandered.

Before this, I had no job prospects, I had no skills, I didn't have anything like that, and this is the first time that I have been here and felt like I won't come back.

Candace Altman, inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility
Peeling back the layers of what beauty means to incarcerated American women shows more than stark inequality in rehabilitation programming; it uncovers a broken system, rife with corruption, that is ill equipped to handle a sudden, sharp spike in population. What starts with haircuts and lipstick quickly folds into a story of the exploitative criminal justice system and, for many, it all starts with access to self-care. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Central Florida.
A Tale Of Two Programmes
The cosmetology room at another state-run prison, Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, is a shadow of its Oregonian counterpart.
Its resources are scant in comparison: Lines of mismatched chairs and shampoo bowls surround tables and bookshelves filled with VHS beauty videos and textbooks that appear to be decades old. There are no in-demand treatments being taught, like lash extensions or gel manicures. Students are limited to cutting, perming, and styling hair, but things like hair dye aren't allowed “for safety reasons,” the director reports. When we asked a prison spokesperson to expand on these safety concerns, they said that Florida Administrative Code prohibits prisoners from dyeing their hair for security and identification purposes. But the full clause indicates that this is specific to extreme dye jobs that would "call attention to the inmate or separate inmates into groups based upon style." Regardless, practicing on mannequin heads would be an easy, albeit more expensive, way around this.
Florida code prohibits inmates from having their hair styled or braided anywhere but the institutional beauty shop.
We were told the prison taught makeup application and skin care, but during a visit to the programme, the instructor (who prefers to be anonymous) couldn’t locate more than a few dusty eyeshadow palettes and two jars of cold cream from the back of a locked supply cabinet. It’s a downer for students, who know they’re not coming out prepared. “I'm grateful for the programme, even though we don't [get] a license,” Ashley* says. “I mean, you can't even get out of prison and start work, but I mean ... I'm getting a lot further in here doing this class than I would probably [be] out there [in the general prison population].”
Because the curriculum is limited, inmates don’t learn what they need to finish their degrees, and are never offered testing opportunities — so they’re left to restart and pay for an accredited programme outside of prison if they want to actually work as cosmetologists after being released. It’s a head start, but not much more. Of the women we spoke to at Lowell, interest in pursuing a career in beauty after being released was mixed.
Lowell cosmetology curriculum falls short of what the state requires, so licenses are not issued upon release.
It speaks to how, without oversight, the promise of a cosmetology programme is at the mercy of the prison it’s housed in. In fact, between talking about haircuts and cold waves — a technique being taught to perm hair that uses a cold chemical wash over rollers — many took the opportunity to share their more-pressing concerns with us. While the Hair Design students in Oregon spoke to us about their hopes for the future, Florida’s students were more worried about their present, making it hard to focus on the little they’re learning.
“There's a lot of things that go on in [the prison] that the officers don't get to see,” Ashley* told us. “If you tell, or if you say anything... there's no protection really.” Another student shared her safety concerns: “You always have to watch your back wherever you go, even with the officers and with the inmates at the same time. It makes it really difficult.”
Compared to the conditions at Lowell, coming in for a cut is part self-care, part refuge, even with the limited services. “You come in here and you just take yourself in another world,” one older inmate getting a cut told us. “You wake up and just, I guess, expect the unexpected [in Lowell].” She’s been incarcerated for drug charges on and off since 1998 and says that while the inmate population has dramatically grown, conditions have only gotten worse.
While most inmates wouldn’t fully express themselves under the supervision of our prison escort, a woman getting a haircut on the last day of her sentence did. “How the officers will talk to you at some times is a struggle, and just knowing that you have to bite your tongue because you can't talk back,” she says.
Lowell inmates say the cosmetology program is a refuge from prison life.
It’s not just the cosmetology students at Lowell — the general prison population suffers from this programme being limited, too. Oregon’s Hair Design provides a beauty salon and supply store, where inmates can order basics, like shampoo, skin-care products, and makeup, through the programme for low prices. This isn’t offered at Lowell. It’s something that Kennedy has seen change the trajectory of an inmate’s time at Coffee Creek. “A lot of self esteem is lost when women come to prison,” Kennedy says. “Being able to colour their hair, do their nails, and those types of things help to restore a little bit of that.”
Former inmates at Lowell say that providing this access would help combat the supply-and-demand issues happening for beauty and wellness products on the inside in Florida, which has been heavily documented in a series of exposés by The Miami Herald.
The bottom line seems to be that because beauty and self-care have been so heavily ingrained in our culture, the function of makeup, perfume, and hair products can empower inmates to feel like themselves again — or leave them in danger of exploitation. Because they so deeply want to hold onto themselves in a place where they have little control of their destiny.
The Power Of Beauty Products
Former Lowell inmate Natalie Hall, 40, who was released in 2017, was no stranger to contraband beauty, from dyeing her hair with stolen peroxide from the medical department, to applying coloured pencils on her eyes in lieu of eyeshadow. Sometimes she was sent to confinement for it, but she says it was worth it. “To wake up and do your hair and have a little bit of makeup, or maybe some contraband perfume, was everything,” Hall says. She’s even made bootleg fragrance by soaking magazine fragrance samples in small jars of water in her cell. “You let it sit for like 10 days and you'd have perfume for a week,” she says. “It was nice. We would give it to each other as gifts for birthdays or Christmas or things like that.”
Former Lowell inmate Natalie Hall shows reporter Lexy Lebsack the colored pencils inmates use for eyeshadow.
On the outside, it’s hard to understand why someone would even risk getting in trouble for bootleg perfume or coloured pencil eyeliner, but former Lowell inmate Amanda Hunter, 26, who was released in 2016, says that there’s a mental shift that happens when you are denied access to everyday essentials you rely upon. “It changes you into a survivor, I guess. It makes you more predatory,” she says. “It becomes your primary goal to always see that these things are taken care of. Even if you have to ration other things, or sell other things… you will find a way to get it.”
Without access to the products the inmates crave, they’re left open to exploitation by the same guards tasked with watching them. “They'll definitely use your needs against you,” Hunter says.
Hall saw this firsthand. She describes life on the inside as a forced barter economy between inmates and guards: sexual favours, making eye contact with guards while they watched you shower, and flirting could be leveraged for contraband, like makeup, and necessities, like toilet paper, soap, and tampons.
“If a girl's performing sexual favours for an officer, he would bring her in coloured pencils, lip gloss, things that she could use for makeup or to sell,” Hall says. But it’s more than sexual favours that are sold for beauty on the inside. Hunter claims that officers would bribe inmates with canteen dollars (to buy shampoo or skin care) if they assaulted inmates the guards disliked. “‘Man, I’ll give you canteen dollars if you beat up that girl’, they’d say,” Hunter alleges.

A lot of self esteem is lost when women come to prison. Being able to colour their hair, do their nails, and those types of things help to restore a little bit of that.

Tammy Kennedy, Programme Director at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility
This was the secret, underground economy that ran on a currency of self-care that Hunter and Hall both allege was rampant at Lowell — and they say that participating wasn’t always a choice. “When I turned down the guards [for sex] I was thrown in confinement or my stuff was torn apart, my pictures [of family] ripped up, sheets stepped on, contraband taken away,” Hall says. “My life made a living hell.”
When asked about the former Lowell inmates' allegations, a prison spokesperson issued a statement saying “physical and sexual assault are never tolerated by the Department,” adding that since 2015, the prison installed more cameras in housing units, as well as audio recording in all special housing units, and is currently in the process of implementing 40 additional cameras within its facilities. They also made changes to their video storage capacities. Any allegations of physical and sexual misconduct are “aggressively investigated” within two business days and subject to dismissal and even arrest. “The Department is committed to providing inmates with a safe environment, free from sexual abuse, sexual battery, and sexual harassment.”
Supplies at Coffee Creek's cosmetology program are closely monitored by staff.
It’s not an uncommon problem. “When you're incarcerating so many people who have a history of trauma and PTSD, you're creating circumstances that are just right for all kinds of terrible things to happen,” says Beth Schwartzapfel, staff writer from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan prison watchdog group. “When guards have so much power, and the inmates are so powerless, it's just a corrupting situation.”
Even Coffee Creek, with its model programme, has had its own problems through the years, too, including a sex scandal in 2016, a sexual abuse lawsuit in 2017, and an untimely death linked to limited access to flu shots earlier this year.
Here’s where the need for programming comes back in. While it certainly cannot solve the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, it can help. By investing in cosmetology, you increase the supply of these valuable products, therefore offsetting the demand and thus, the ones who hold the power because of it.
Skeptics might not approve of tax dollars and grants going for programmes like this, but it turns out that for every dollar spent on in-prison programming, five more are saved in lower recidivism rates, according to the Council of Economic Advisers.
Popv reminds us that programming lowers the chance of returning to prison, but it also makes for a better experience inside. “It also increases the likelihood that they don't have behavior issues inside,” she says. “These programmes increase the likelihood they make good choices for themselves, both inside the facility and outside.”
At Coffee Creek, 89 women have successfully graduated from the Hair Design programme and reintegrated into society — and only six have ever returned to prison. In fact, the Hair Design programme automatically reduces the chances of returning to prison to a third of the national average, according to Kennedy, who keeps a binder of her success stories from the past 16 years on her desk to encourage current students. Hair Design is among the best such programmes in the country thanks to Kennedy’s dedication to apply for education grants to supplement state funding through Coffee Creek’s rehabilitation budget, as well as a partnership with Portland Community College, which oversees the curriculum.
Beauty is just one piece of a complex puzzle, but it’s one that can change lives. "It's a privilege that everybody is excited about," Altman says about Hair Design’s impact at Coffee Creek. “It's not a matter of deserving these things, it's a matter of rehabilitating people, giving them hope, and keeping them from continuing the same cycles, and coming back."
*Names have been changed and some last names have been omitted to protect the subjects' safety and privacy.

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