Beauty Tips for Prisoners
Petra Cirino laid her scissors on the counter and watched her customer wipe at the snips of hair clinging to her sweaty face. “I feel like a new woman,” said Frances Burgos, stroking her stylish bob. Petra beamed. When not locked up on Rikers Island, Petra cuts hair in her Spanish Harlem apartment, charging up to $50 a head. Today, she was working as a hairdresser at Rosie’s, getting lots of love from her fellow inmates but earning only $12 a week.
My captain-escort dropped me off here one afternoon and didn’t bother to stick around. Decorated with ripped leather chairs, the salon had scant amenities: no glossy magazines, no manicures, no colorings. But the beauty parlor did boast two hot presses, honey- and-almond shampoo, four sinks, pink cinder-block walls, and Petra’s considerable skills—beautifying her clients while masking the scars of their pre-prison lives.
Nowhere may a beauty salon be more needed than inside the women’s jail on Rikers Island. The women here appear to be in far worse shape than the men—more sickly, more beaten-up, more defeated. Statistics confirm they are more likely to be HIV-positive and mentally ill. Black eyes and bruises are lingering reminders of abusive boyfriends and husbands on the outside. And some women appear only half alive, zombies passing the weeks in a Thorazine stupor. More men have their rap sheets written on their faces—the half-healed scar of a buck-fifty, say—but the women here also carry the scars of lives hard-fought.
Petra has encountered so many disfigured heads on Rikers Island that she adapted her hair-cutting routine for the prisoner clientele. “Before I start with anyone,” she explained, “I ask, ‘What do you want? Do you have any scars? Do you have any place you don’t want me to touch?’ ” Even with her ample experience, Petra’s newest client posed a challenge. Frances had an uneven scalp, a fact she revealed by pushing aside a lock of wavy hair near her crown, exposing a smooth, bald spot the size of a quarter.
“I’ve got a big dent because I’ve got a plate in my head,” said Frances, who was 28 years old and had four children. “I was seven months pregnant when I got shot five years ago. I was an innocent bystander on a street in Brooklyn.” Frances finished her story by lifting her lime green shorts, showing the foot-long scars that crawl up the inside of each thigh.
Every day, a few dozen prisoners visit this windowless room. To get a hair appointment, inmates must jot their names on a sign-up sheet; those going to court the next day jump to the top of the list. Fifteen minutes in a chair at this beauty parlor represents a chance for a woman to improve not only her appearance but also her odds of going home a little sooner.
“I really wish I could go to court tomorrow,” said an inmate accused of selling crack, as she admired her freshly cut hair in the mirror. “I would look proper in front of the judge and the D.A., to let them know I’m starting to make a change.” For a prisoner with no bail money and an impossible-to-reach public defender, getting her hair pressed and curled may be one of the only steps she can take to expedite her release.
As she moved around her salon, the hairdresser dragged one leg. When I asked Petra about her own scars, she rolled up her pants. “I don’t have a kneecap,” explained Petra, 42, glancing down at a leg that appeared eaten away, gnarled scar tissue replacing once smooth skin. “Thirteen years ago, I fell off a motorcycle. I was in a wheelchair for a year, then four years until I was off crutches.” Petra paused. “I’m always in pain,” she added.
Petra’s job helped her forget that this was her fifth trip to Rikers, that she’d already done one bid in state prison on a drug-selling charge, that she might soon have to make another trip upstate. To land a job cutting hair at Rosie’s this summer, Petra did not have to submit a résumé or endure a series of interviews. She came in as a customer on a recent day and, frustrated by the long wait, picked up a pair of clippers and trimmed her own hair.
“She did a good job, and I said, ‘We might as well put you to use,’ ” said John Nance, the 53-year-old barber who has overseen the salon for 11 years. Like any manager, he knew how hard it was to find good employees. “We have to fire a lot of them because they don’t want to obey orders,” Nance said of his inmate stylists. “But we give them one week’s notice.”
Over the years, Nance has heard the stories of hundreds of inmates, and along the way he’s developed strong opinions about the criminal justice system. “A lot of girls are here that shouldn’t be here,” said Nance, who cuts hair at his own barbershop in Queens after he gets off work at Rosie’s. “They constantly come in, over and over. I don’t understand it. It’s mostly drug addicts in here.”
Though the barber tries to forget about the jail’s grim procession of junkies when he leaves each day, the women’s stories have inspired him to do his part to stop Rikers’ revolving door. He and his wife adopted two children born to a drug-addicted mother. “That’s two I’ll keep from here,” Nance explained.
As the salon’s 3 p.m. closing time neared, the day’s last customers trickled out the door and the hair dryer’s noisy hum stopped. “I don’t get paid that much here,” Petra said, as she checked her supply of shampoo and cleaned her clippers. “But it’s relaxing to me. I’m doing something I do on the street, so I feel a little freer.” At the officer’s desk by the door, the hairdresser traded her tools—her scissors, comb, trimmers, and clippers—for her inmate ID card. The guard frisked Petra, and prisoner #5617359J limped back to her cell.