This story appears in the Pre-Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story and photography by Ashley Brechtel
Nestled along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a small area that straddles the Louisiana state line called Hancock County. There is no TGI Friday’s or shopping mall, not even a movie theatre. The people are friendly and will forever reference time with before or after “Katrina” (Katrina of course being the infamous hurricane that rolled through back in 2005).
If you drive west along the main road past Grammy’s donut shop, Clawzilla’s Seafood and Restaurant, and the Knock Knock Lounge, things become even more sparse before you arrive at the jail. The parking lot of the Hancock County correctional facility is nearly empty. No one wants to be here, and unless you’re an employee or are serving time, there is no reason to be. I, however, have come willingly and with anticipation. I’m here to meet the female inmates, hear their stories and hopefully learn a few things.
I leave all of my personal belongings at the front desk as I’m only allowed to bring a notebook and pen with me to interview the girls. I’m told that they are excited about my visit, and knowing that calms my nerves. The vision of steely eyed women with their arms folded in defiance leaves me, and I’m hopeful this endeavor will be a successful one.
As I walk down a long, empty hallway, I see male inmates through small glass windows and hear whistles. “Who’s your friend?” some ask Corrections Officer Grisham, who is leading the way. I continue to stare ahead, taking in my surroundings.
This jail is fairly new, built in January 2012, which is very apparent. No chipped paint or scuffed floors. Everything is gleaming. Like a hospital, this building is intimidating, impersonal and depressing.
Assistant Warden, Captain Brandon Zeringue, tells me a little about the joint. The maximum capacity for this corrections facility is 285 with about nine male inmates for every female. The inmates’ uniforms are color-coded: All orange means that the individual has been charged with a misdemeanor; black and white stripes are for a non-violent felony; red and white stripes are for a violent felony; and all red means that the person is an assault risk to officers.
We arrive at our destination and Officer Grisham speaks into a two-way radio mounted on her shoulder before the door opens. I enter and about 20 women stop and stare at me. Thankfully, no one is wearing all red.
We enter a massive room with gray walls, stainless steel tables and chairs bolted to the floor. One wall is lined with showers while another has several small televisions mounted up high.
There are two rows of cells, six upstairs and six downstairs. Collectively, these 12 cells can hold a maximum of 38 women. Normally, only one row is allowed into the common area at a time but today is a special circumstance, so they are all allowed out to speak with me.
I grew up in the area, and I immediately recognize two of the inmates from school. The usual, “Hey! How have you been?” that I typically use when running into old, childhood acquaintances at the local Walmart suddenly seems cruel.
The girl that immediately stands out is Kori. She is donning a small Snooki-esque bump and is wearing glitter eyeliner. She seems excited to share her secrets with me, but first the girls want to make me a cake.
The ingredients are laid out on the table: a pack of sandwich cookies, a Snickers candy bar and a carton of milk. The girls work quickly together. One puts on a pair of rubber gloves and removes the icing from each cookie, mixing it all in a plastic bowl. She then crumbles up the wafers while another girl melts the Snickers bar in the microwave.
The newly melted candy bar is poured onto the cookie crumbs and a little milk is added. Everything is mixed together and placed on a piece of cardboard from an old notebook. The concoction is molded into what can best be described as a sheet cake. The icing is spread over it like frosting. As we settle in with our "cake," which is actually quite tasty, it's time to get down to the real reason I'm here: beauty.
If you haven’t been living under a rock then you’ve probably heard of the Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black,” where female prisoners use what little resources they have to create hair extensions, lip gloss and even shower shoes. I wanted to know how much of that was real life and how much was the product of imaginative writers. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is real life, and these female inmates are just as concerned with their beauty routine as the rest of us.
While the girls rush to their cells to retrieve the necessary items, Kori invites me to see hers and I follow, peering into others as I pass. She is upbeat with her grand, sweeping hand gestures, “Here is my waterfront condo,” she jokes. “It’s paid off.” I enter her cell and am surprised by just how similar it looks to the ones I see on TV. It’s small with a set of steel-framed bunk beds holding thin mattresses. In the corner, a modest steel toilet. Kori lifts up her mattress to show me a fashion magazine she’s managed to obtain. The pages are bare of color because she’s been rubbing it off to use as eyeshadow. “Magazines have the best colors,” she explains.
Once we get back to our table in the common area the girls are ready to show me what they know. I ask my most pressing question, which is directed to Kori: “How did you get glitter eyeliner?” She responds simply with, “I made it.” How she made it seems obvious to everyone but me.
It turns out that the government-issued, clear toothpaste is useful for many things beside brushing your teeth, including mixing with glitter. “We love when our family and friends send us cards with glitter,” exclaims one inmate who says they simply scrape it off and save it.
I’m told that the toothpaste is also great for getting stains out of your clothes, cleaning your shoes and mixing with conditioner to make hair gel.
A clean-faced girl sits, and Kori gets to work. A packet of cocoa left over from a previous breakfast is poured into a cup and a little baby powder is added. Afterward, the stuffing is removed from a maxi pad and used to put the powder on the girl’s face as a type of foundation. I’m told that instant coffee grounds can also work if you need a darker pigment.
For eyeshadow, an empty potato chip bag is opened and the foil backing is removed. Toilet paper is rubbed on a stick of deodorant and then rubbed on the chip bag, extracting the color (in this case, brown). The toilet paper is rubbed onto the eyelids, leaving a richer than expected hue, followed by the cheeks for blush.
There are seemingly no limits to what these inmates can do with a few items. Mascara is made from pen ink and a toothbrush. ChapStick is used as a face primer. Kool-Aid mixed with Vaseline makes for a great lip stain and loose strings from clothing are saved to thread eyebrows.
Tampons are not available in jail so the girls make their own using maxi-pads, and of course someone is more than happy to show me how.
With precision and ease, the stuffing from the pad is removed and rolled tightly into a cylindrical shape. It is then wrapped in toilet paper. The outside liner of the pad is wrapped over the toilet paper and twisted at the base. The end result is a tampon, string and all.
No makeover is complete without a hair transformation, and the girls show me how they make curlers out of toilet paper rolls, which they then wrap in their hair while wet. Once the hair has dried the curlers are removed for wavy, bouncy locks.
Officer Grisham says she is amazed by what the girls can do. “I’ll see a girl with board-straight hair one day and the next day it’s curly. At first, I would search their cells wondering how they’ve managed to obtain a curling iron. I quickly learned that they can do this, and so much more, with items already at their disposal; no heat necessary.”
The girls say that they also dye their hair with coffee or tea to cover gray or liven up dull tresses.
I watch with interest as girls ooh and aah over their makeovers. “Some of the best talent I’ve seen in my life comes from behind prison walls,” says Kori who has spent many years in different facilities.
My biggest questions for the girls are: "Why? Who are they trying to impress? What is the purpose?"
Their answer isn’t that surprising: It makes them feel good and gives them something to do with their time. Also, many of them want to look as nice as they can for their kids, parents and significant others on visitation days.
Some of the women here have turned this into their trade. They’ll thread eyebrows in exchange for a candy bar or a hand-drawn birthday card to mail their kid. Money is no good here; instead they barter with chip bags and candy wrappers.
Realizing this makes me all the more grateful because they are using their skills and very limited resources for someone they just met. It’s not like they can just run to Sephora for more concealer when they run out. What is considered trash to the rest of us is precious material to these girls.
As I left that visit (with a hair curler, a homemade tampon, a half-tube of toothpaste and two drawings in tow) I was surprised by how much fun I had. Those two hours were spent eating, laughing and sharing. Not much different than an evening with my girlfriends.
Several months later I was allowed back to the Hancock County correctional facility with permission to photograph the girls. I’m greeted with almost all new faces. No more former classmates are here and Kori is long gone — locked up at yet another jail.
Some girls clam up and shuffle off to the corner when they spot my camera, but a few are willing to show me their beauty routines, and as time passes even the standoffish girls come closer with piqued curiosity. There is once again laughing and joking. I conclude that it’s impossible not to bond when eyeliner and lip gloss are involved.
One of the inmates locked up on the second floor saunters out announcing that she’s off to meet with her lawyer, and the conversation shifts seamlessly from mascara and moisturizer to plea deals and trial dates. The mood doesn’t dampen as I would have suspected. It’s just the way life is here. One minute we’re talking about eyeshadow colors and the next someone is reminded of their upcoming sentencing hearing.
Officer Grisham tells me that everything laid out in front of me is now considered contraband because it has been altered and/or used for a purpose it wasn’t intended for. As soon as I leave the girls will most likely be searched and everything will be confiscated — a friendly reminder that nothing is normal about life here. I may have been a nice distraction, but soon life will go back to business as usual. The girls will be locked back in cells and told when to eat and when to shower, looking forward to the next visit from their loved ones.
Some mornings I look into my makeup drawer and see all my beloved beauty staples: Smashbox primer, M.A.C. bronzer, bareMinerals eyeshadow. How different it is from the girls I met in jail whose items are stored in homemade boxes under their beds: ChapStick, potato chip bags, deodorant, cocoa powder. I imagine their collections are even more precious to them. It’s a way of holding on to their sense of identity in a world of color-coded uniforms and steel bars.