Beauty Hacks: Rikers Island Edition

I wish nobody I love had ever been to prison. But sometimes, when they have, all you can do is ask how they kept their hair shiny and their eyes defined.
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Olivia S.
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I wish nobody I love had ever been to prison. But sometimes, when they have, all you can do is ask how they kept their hair shiny and their eyes defined.

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I really love Orange Is The New Black, but if prison is anything like that, I figure I wouldn’t be the only one smashing down the doors to get in. It looks like a babesy, sexy summer camp where you hang out with your friends all day, where racial segregation is more of a novelty than a tragically violent and devastating manifestation of societal inequalities, and you get to bone hot ladies in the chapel all day long.

When my friend Katie (not her real name) got out of Rikers, New York City’s main jail complex, I asked her if it was really that hilarious and whether I needed to book a plane ticket ASAP. Obviously, she told me it wasn’t.

She told me that when she arrived, charged with a drug offence and maintaining a heroin habit, she wasn’t given her methadone script for a few days, so she cried. A lot. She said her first experiences were of a big scary lady ramming dried ramen noodles in her mouth to shut her up and watching a new inmate with a fresh weave have it ripped out only for it to be repurposed and tied into the heads of other women. There wasn’t the girly camaraderie that looks so goddamned fun.

I asked her how she did her hair, how she washed her face, what she did with her time whilst she waited for her seedy bail bondsman to sort things out. Because Rikers is a jail (or rather, a super-complex of 10 jails) and not a prison, it only holds local offenders who are awaiting trial, those awaiting transfer to another facility, or those who are serving sentences of less than a year. This means that the tips she picked up were a lot hackier than those you could develop in long-term prisons, where you are (often) afforded different luxuries; for example, the opportunity to purchase clothes, cosmetics and transparent electronic devices out of one of the prison catalogues.

These catalogues are pretty pricey, so you can either ask your family to put in an order for you, to transfer money for you or to save up the pennies you earn from your prison job to pay for your own orders. In a judicial system that is often privately run and for-profit, these catalogue operations aren’t particularly benevolent programmes (not that they should be), but if you have the money, you can get yourself some Wet n Wild lip gloss and a CoverGirl eyelash curler.

This strikes me as yet another beautiful and bounteous product of capitalism; all inmates are made equal, except for if you can buy yourself up the ladder of equity and can afford new Nike trainers and a decent television set for your cell. Something about that strikes me as deeply wrong, particularly in a system that is set up almost exclusively for the punishment of the poor, but this is a beauty article and I am not going to give y’all a lecture on why I think the American judicial system sucks. (By the way, I do a little work in our judicial system over here, and that sucks, too; I’m not just transatlantically hating.)

Anyway, Katie wasn’t away for long enough to get me to send her overpriced drugstore cosmetics through an inmate catalogue, so she worked out other ways to maintain her appearance, apparently out of boredom more than vanity. I’m passing on the knowledge so that you don’t have to get locked up before you know the wonders of a Jell-O hair mask.

Apparently, in jail, Vaseline is your friend. Every day, you can go and get a bit scooped out of a giant tub into a little ketchup container and it has myriad fabulous applications in a restricted environment. You can go to "art" class every few weeks, which I naively assumed was wildly progressive art-therapy vibes, but apparently it is just where you can write letters and speak with your lawyer. However, there are graphite and coloured pencils kept in the art room, making it an important date on the beauty calendar. Someone creates a distraction and everyone else stuffs pencils into their underwear.

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The lead from the repurposed graphite pencils can be milled into a fine powder and then mixed with Vaseline and rubbed into your eyelashes for mascara; or the pencil can be dipped into Vaseline and used straight onto your lids as eyeliner. The lead from the coloured pencils can be ground up and made, with Vaseline, into a "glossy cream eyeshadow" or soaked in water to soften it into an eyeliner, which you can apply directly to your lids.

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Moistened coffee grounds and hot chocolate powder work as bronzer and contouring creams. For lips, the girls who favoured a strong lip line would also use the graphite pencil/Vaseline trick to boldly define and enlarge their lips. Katie also told me that, when you are allowed magazines that visitors bring in to you, you can scratch off the ink from the pictures and mix it with with Vaseline to make lipstick of any colour: a world of possibilities exist to ensure practically Sephora level choices once you get crafty.

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Hair is a huge occupation in jail. Apparently braiding becomes like busywork in a room where you have nothing else to do. Red Jell-O from the cafeteria can be used as hair dye; you just put it in your knickers, smuggle it to your cell and then rub it into your hair. You can also darken your hair with black tea, which can be used as a rinse.

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Kitchen workers would also smuggle out canola oil, which is used in place of the occasionally provided hair gel, or the packets you can buy from commissary (if your friends or family can afford to put money into your account). When Katie got out, she had four oiled cornrowed braids across the top of her head and a pineapple at the back, which was apparently super-prison-chic.

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If you don’t have this stuff yourself, or the expertise to manufacture it, someone who likes you might doll you up. If you have a visit, everyone looks after you; if your lawyer is coming, or your probation officer, they’ll do your face and cornrow/pineapple your hair (if you’re lucky). Katie quoted my favourite and most apt prison line: “Girl, you gotta look good for that bail bondsman,” which made me laugh (but sort of cry, considering why she was dressing up for him). Sometimes in life, you have to laugh, or the idea of bribing a corrupt person of power with sexual favours after smothering your eyebrows in graphite pencil and your hair in jello is just too sad to engage with.

I wish nobody I love had ever been to prison, had ever felt they wanted or needed to commit the crimes that got there, had ever slept with someone to fund their fines or bail. But sometimes, when they have, all you can do is ask how they kept their hair shiny and their eyes defined. Because sometimes, talking about the real stuff is just too much to handle, and being able to engage on one level shows how much you are prepared to deal on the other levels if and when they want to. So, I have ended up with a slightly distressing sense of unease and you have all learnt how to make eyeshadow out of an old magazine. We all win!

Do you have any experience of the judicial system? What are your favourite beauty hacks? And what would you be ordering from the prison catalogue (I know y’all looked through all 200+ pages like I did)?