Across the country, hundreds of thousands of women are facing a new reality. If a girl is performing sexual favors, he would bring her in colored pencils, lip gloss. Where they are forced to navigate worlds of sexual bartering, manipulation, and abuse while finding ways to survive. They’ll definitely use your needs against you. Sexually, physically, emotionally. They will break you down any way they can. Over the last few decades, women have been making gains in representation in almost every field and industry. Yet there’s one part of society where the number of women has exploded and they’re still fighting for basic rights: Prison. Since the 1980’s, the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed by 700%. Women have become the fastest growing population entering the criminal justice system. It’s a $173 billion dollar industry, making it bigger than Target, Uber, and Netflix. Just outside of Portland, Oregon, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility has found a unique way to ease it’s overpopulation problem: providing beauty behind bars through its cosmetology program. Thank you. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I knew that beauty had the power to transform, but could it really change how women do time? We went to see who these women were, and what they had to say. The cosmetology program here started in 2002, when Coffee Creek saw a need for female focus programming, and decided to do something about it. What do you want to do today? Just a trim. The program has become so popular that it recently doubled in size. Fellow inmates make up most of the clients who come in for services provided by the students. How’s that? Yeah. Everything from hair and makeup, to gels, and even eyelash extensions. I think it looks really good, you did a very
good job The program itself is highly competitive to get into. To even be considered, inmates must have a track record of good behavior and a desire to change. If there’s anything I’m good at, it will be makeup. Its certainly true for 34-year-old Candice Altman, a repeat offender at Coffee Creek on drug charges. Some of us made more than one bad decision, but a majority of us are just here feeling bad about the things that we did. We want to get out and be good moms, and have careers, and to be reintegrated. We want that. The majority of women coming into prison are like Candice, in for a non-violent offense and the primary caretaker of a child under 18. It doesn’t look like much now, but it’s gonna be nice when it’s done. They’re also predominantly women of color. This is my third time in prison and so, at every other time it’s just been hopeless, like wasted time. For the first time I feel like I just have this goal. This just– something, some kind of purpose. Why is beauty especially important for women who are in prison? You kind of lose your femininity. We all wear men’s jeans and these terribly fitting blue t-shirts. They take away all your individuality. They take away everything like that. So I think you taking care of yourself and doing your makeup and fixing your hair, it just helps your whole attitude about being here. It’s all affected by that, I think. Someone might say that women in prison don’t necessarily deserve access to beauty products. What would you say to that? Maybe it’s not a matter of deserving these things. It’s a matter of rehabilitating people and giving them hope, and keeping them from continuing the same cycles of coming back. We have a lot of women that are here that we find have co-occurring disorders, so both mental health issues, and alcohol and drug treatment needs, and they find themselves on this path that they don’t really have a lot of control in. Christine views the success of the cosmetology program as proof that an approach tailored towards women works. These women, a number of them, repeat bad relationships, and the notion of their own sense of worth and value is not something they have a great grasp on. Certainly, the programs help the practice. They help the sense of, “I can do this. I know how to do this.” And supporting them in that manner is crucial. Many of the women here at Coffee Creek and across the country come into prison with a history of mental health issues, domestic violence, and sexual abuse that makes their rehabilitation that much more complicated. Programs like this not only provide women with an access point to beauty and self care, but help to bridge the gap of mental health, drug, and social services that are underfunded. Despite the fact that for every taxpayer dollar spent on services, up to five more are saved in recidivism. Coffee Creek gave me a glimpse into what a prison at the forefront of responding to the influx of incarcerated women looks like. But I wanted to know, how are other prisons across the country responding? I went to visit another program in another prison with a very different environment. Lowell Correctional Facility is one of the largest women’s prisons in the country. The officers are underpaid and stretched thin, often at the expense of the inmates. But there’s a bright spot: the cosmetology program. As soon as I walked in I met Kerry, who after serving almost three years for multiple charges, was coming in for a haircut before being released the next day. Why was it important for you to come in today before you get out tomorrow? I mean, it just means everything to have your hair done, and walk out and feel good about yourself as you’re re-entering society. When those little things are taken away you don’t realize how important they are until you don’t have them. It makes sense, for many women, including myself. Beauty has been ingrained in us by society as an integral part of how we understand who we are. And in prison, where so much is stripped away from you, makeup becomes a lifeline to hold onto. It was clear that this program was doing a lot for these women. But even in this little sanctuary, they couldn’t entirely escape what was allegedly going on beyond these walls. It’s what you have to live with, since you are in prison. The problem is the whole structure of the prison is set up in a way that sort of invites abuse. When guards have so much power, and inmates are so powerless, it’s just a corrupting situation really. 27-year-old Amanda Hunter was sentenced
to a year and a day for resisting and battery of a law enforcement officer. She was released in December of 2016. I told the officers, “I made a promise I’m coming for heads.” I’m telling everything. The abuse, you know, sexually, physically, emotionally. They will break you down anyway they can. What would happen if you saw and reported an officer? Anything. I mean, they’ll take you to lock for it. They’ll threaten your life. I’ve heard the stories, you know, of people who overdose on blood pressure medicine. You know, but these people were fearing for their lives and were writing home telling their families, “I’m afraid they’re gonna kill me,” and then you end up dead. Amanda was referring to the case of Latandra Ellington, an inmate who in 2014 was found dead in her confinement cell at just 36 years old. The autopsy ruled it a natural death even though toxicology reports found levels of blood pressure medication 7 to 8 times the normal amount. Just 10 days before, Latandra allegedly witnessed an officer having sex with an inmate. Latandra said that when she threatened to report it, the officer threatened her life. The mysterious conditions surrounding Latandra’s death set off a series of investigations that came out in the Miami Herald. The reports revealed a culture of abuse by officers, including sexual bartering with inmates for things like cigarettes, sanitary pads, or even makeup. 40-year-old Natalie Hall witnessed firsthand how the conditions at Lowell opened the door for exploitation. I’m not gonna project like I was some perfect model inmate, cause I wasn’t. Natalie was sentenced to five and a half years for armed robbery. She told us that she’s been clean since her release since March of 2017, blaming her heroin habit putting her in the wrong place with the wrong people. So these are colored pencils. They’re contraband, which means you can’t have them. But we still get them. And you dip it in water and it just comes right off. We would do our eyes with them. Where did you get them? Usually if a girl’s performing sexual favors for an officer he would bring her in colored pencils, lip gloss, things like that that she could use for makeup or to sell. She revealed to us that this kind of sexual bartering for makeup was just the tip of the iceberg. You would have to sit at the window and basically flirt with a male officer for a good 20, 30 minutes just to get just enough toilet paper to use the restroom. They’ll definitely use your needs against you. The things that they keep from us, toilet paper, pads. You didn’t get tampons, unless you bought them. See, as inmates, we find a way. When those necessities aren’t met, and taken care of, it becomes your primary goal to always see that these things are taken care of. This is your prison tampon. Even if you’ll get in trouble for it, you have to get it, and you will find a way to get it. On Lowell’s main unit, there’s not even walls in between shower heads. So here’s the officer’s station, here’s a wall that’s maybe four feet, and here’s six shower heads where six women shower next to each other. And believe me, the officers watch the whole thing. Did they ever make comments? Oh yeah, I even have text messages. “I miss turning around and seeing those things, you in the shower, ha ha ha. You know you got extra toilet paper that day.” Officers have reached out to you since you’ve been out? Yes. At least four. Would you be willing to show us those text messages? Sure. I don’t care. He was like, “That’s good. I still talked about you after you left. Always turning around and seeing you and those things in the shower because of you being taller than the door and wall. Boy, I miss that. LOL. And Jacksonville isn’t too far from me, maybe 40 minutes at the most. Could we meet up?” What did he mean by “those things?” My breasts. I really thought he was just like checking in on me. And I think this is when it hit me that all they wanted was sex. It’s a situation of power. How many tampons you get, if any. How many pads you get. Whether you get to your shower or not. Those decisions are all made by guards. So, you can see how if you get somebody in there who’s mean or vindictive, or wants something from you, it’s easy for them to make that happen. If a guard wants sex from you, what do you do? You could say no, but they have control over every aspect of your life. While the allegations we heard about Lowell illustrates an extreme version of what can happen when a prison systematically fails
the inmates it’s responsible for, this type of exploitation and abuse is pervasive across the country. Even Coffee Creek has had issues. That fact is, until the criminal justice system overhauls the way it treats women behind bars, no prison is immune to these problems. Billions of dollars are being spent in the
name of mass incarceration. But what happens once the inmates are in the system? Without safe conditions to serve their time and the programs to address the underlying issues, women find themselves trapped by bad circumstances and bad choices. Sometimes we just have to get them out of the scenario that they’re in, or the situation that they’re in. They find that they’re stronger and smarter than they ever knew they were. Do the women who participate in an educational or vocational program tend to have a lower chance of returning to prison? Participation in programming, in general,
greatly impacts recidivism rates. It is something that the women have just really thrived in. I didn’t know how to take care of myself so I always went back in to use drugs and committing crime to support myself. Has your experience this time been different from the other because of this program? Everyday I build more and more confidence. This program is really is helping me to be able to build that foundation. Not have to depend on nobody to provide what I’m supposed to provide for my kids. It’s clear that programs like this provide the means to restore women’s dignity and self-respect amid the harshest conditions. Beauty is just one small piece of a complex puzzle, but it’s one that can change lives. Prison is supposed to be punishment, it’s also supposed to be rehabilitation. I needed rehab, not a prison where men degraded me and put me down and abused people. Nobody deserves what I went through. Nobody. Somebody says that I’m not getting necessities that I need to live life normally, that’s not a punishment, that’s abuse. If you did that to a child, you’re gonna lose your child, you’re gonna go to jail. So why is it okay to do that to an adult? There’s no quick fix for a system overwhelmed with problems, but one thing is clear: No one can rehabilitate when they’re fighting for basic needs of survival. And until then, the criminal justice system will continue to funnel predominantly non-violent offenders into a world that leaves these women worse off than when they went in. Thanks for watching Refinery29. For more videos like this click here, and to subscribe, click here.