How beauty products help women in prison retain their identities

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Sophie Goddard
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As the new series of Orange is the New Black hits our screens, Sophie Goddard finds out why makeup in prison really matters to the women living there…

Once a month in HMP Peterborough’s Women’s Prison, a wave of excitement ripples through the cells. But it’s not family visits or phone calls getting the residents riled up: it’s the Avon catalogue, which is about to be distributed by guards. Within minutes, residents will be poring over make-up and toiletries with their cellmates, chatting loudly about what exactly they’ll spend their hard-earned prison money on. Will it be eyeliner, or body butter?

“Getting the catalogue was something we all looked forward to,” remembers Ang*, 28, who was released from Peterborough in 2013. “It’s just ‘enhanced’ prisoners who are allowed it – those of us who stayed out of trouble, basically. You’d order things like shower gel, body lotion or make-up – anything except glass items or perfume.” The reason for the ban on perfume? Its alcohol content. 

Flicking through the Avon catalogue might not be the first thing you imagined women in UK prisons to be doing. In reality, beauty products are not available to all female inmates. Out of 121 prisons in the UK, there are just 12 women’s prisons and according to The Ministry of Justice, rules and privileges vary between each. 

“Women’s prisons have a list of products available to inmates which they review on a regular basis, which includes make-up and other cosmetics,” a spokesperson told “Each local prison selects items from a national list of approved products to offer, which women can buy through prisoner retail outlets. Relatives can’t send in items other than books, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’.” 

Some products are available to most – tweezers and hair scrunchies, for example. Hairdryers and electric shavers on the other hand? Strictly ‘enhanced prisoners’ only. 

Prisoners can only offer products from an approved list

Still, with typical earnings in prison around £15 a week, money doesn’t go far – perhaps stretching to a blusher and a body lotion if careful (and that’s only if you’re willing to prioritise make-up over, say, phone credit or a chocolate bar). If you did have enough money for lots of make-up, stockpiling isn’t a wise move. 

“Ordering make-up or toiletries is a bad idea – the more you have, the more you stand out,” explains Ang. “I bought a few things now and then, like a face powder I’d wanted, but it makes you a target for theft. Inside, people steal everything from your coffee to sugar and tobacco, especially during ‘association time’ when residents wander freely in and out of each other’s rooms. 

“You’d return to find your shampoo gone, or cutlery had vanished. And because we all earned the same amount, people would soon clock if you’d ordered more than everybody else; it was a sure-fire sign your family are sending you money. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself under pressure to get money or products for other people, too.”

If you’re wondering why women need mascara or bronzer in prison, it’s worth considering the backgrounds of many female inmates – as well as the psychological effects of incarceration. According to a report by the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of women in prison have been victims of domestic violence and more than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. 

“You’d return to find your shampoo gone”

And while they make up only 5% of the total prison population, female prisoners account for a third of all incidents of self-harm, with female suicides per 1,000 prisoners now higher than men for the first time since 2007. It doesn’t help that the smaller number of women’s prisons means women are generally stationed far away from families and loved ones, too.

While the situation is complex, what if equipping women with just a few basic tools – paid for with money they’ve rightfully earned inside – could help with rehabilitation?

One person who believes it can is Fionnuala Shannon, director of programmes and operations at Dressed for Success, a charity helping rehabilitate disadvantaged women – many of whom have been incarcerated.

Many women enter prison with very low confidence levels, and their self-esteem generally worsens inside, she explains. This can make the transition to life outside very difficult.

“As a charity, instead of judging women, we focus on properly rehabilitating them and building their confidence is a huge part of that. We aim to give women the tools and techniques to find work after prison and reacclimatise to life outside, and that means ensuring they look and feel good.”

Women in prison for a long time lose interest in their physical appearance

The results, she says, can be staggering. “One woman visited us who had been imprisoned for a financial crime; she hadn’t been out of tracksuit bottoms for 12 years. In prison, she’d neglected her hair, face and body, even basic hygiene. 

“We helped her learn how to present herself: typically women lose interest in those things in prison. It was a very slow process, but she got there. We saw her grow from not being able to look anyone in the eye to being much more confident – she even wore a dress to a job interview.”

Many women who have been in prison for a long time don’t care about their physical appearance. “No matter the crime, spending time inside decreases your confidence and psychologically it’s very impactful not looking or feeling like you normally do in your own environment. If we can change that, we must,” Shannon adds.

It’s something women in prison feel strongly about, too. “When you first go to prison, you can take what’s in your possession to your cell,” recalls Ang. For her, that was foundation, mascara and eyeliner, all of which soon ran out. “I found it really hard because you lose yourself and your identity in prison. You wear the same grey or navy tracksuit every day, there’s no make-up or hair styling.”

“To be honest, I still don’t really know who I am now.”

Before prison, Ang wore hair extensions because she has alopecia. “I remember asking a guard if I could get something sent in from my family and he laughed, saying, ‘What do you need that for? You’re in prison’. They didn’t understand that I felt completely stripped of every aspect of myself – I went from being a confident person who could walk into a room and talk to anyone, to being the complete opposite.

“I was so ashamed of who I’d become, I didn’t look in a mirror for six months after going inside. It was really damaging. To be honest, I still don’t really know who I am now.”

If you think that’s tough, the difficulties facing women of colour are even greater, says Aliyah*, 25, who spent time at both Holloway Prison and Drake Hall in Staffordshire.

“As somebody with Afro hair, I was surprised there wasn’t anything suitable for me at Drake Hall – literally nothing,” she explains. “At the time of my imprisonment, you could only get really basic products which just wouldn’t work in black hair, it was so frustrating.”

Aliyah and fellow inmates petitioned for black hair products to be available from cosmetics company PAK - and they were successful. “It might sound like a small thing but when you have family or partners visiting, you want to look your best. It’s for your own self-esteem, but also so they don’t worry about you, you know?”

Prisoners gain skills to help them get jobs when they’re released

But while access to products is important, for Aliyah, it was the opportunity to work in Drake Hall’s in-house beauty and hair salon that really turned things around. The salon provides a place for women to work and gain qualifications for the outside world, and caters to members of the public as well as prison staff and inmates.

Along with prisoners and staff, the public booked in, too.“That gave me such confidence knowing that people were actually paying for our skills,” Aliyah says. Despite going into prison aged 18 with no qualifications, she was able to find a job as a nail technician immediately after her release – something she doesn’t think she could have achieved without working in the salon at Drake Hall.

For those still unconvinced of the benefits, it’s worth considering that instilling women with confidence can help them reacclimatise to the outside world – which, in turn, may reduce the chances of them returning to prison.

“The freedom of leaving was difficult to handle,” explains Ang. “I was terrified of everything, but especially roads – we’d been locked up for so long that on my first day out, I walked straight out in front of traffic. Not having to ask permission to do everything was confusing and being alone felt very surreal. It was terrifying, and I understand why so many women find themselves back there.”

Happily, Aliyah told me she left prison a different person, both physically and mentally. “I came out three stone lighter than I went in,” she says. “I threw myself into the gym and Zumba classes on a daily basis, using it as a way of physically channelling all my anger. That, and the skills I learned in the salon, meant that when I was released I was much stronger than when I went in. 

“I was still paranoid of talking to strangers and found it a really difficult transition, but I know I’d have been much, much worse otherwise. I honestly don’t think I’d have had a chance in the real world, actually.”

*names have been changed

Images: Getty