In 2013, Netflix released the original series Orange is the New Black. If you've seen the show, based on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir of the same name, you might think you know a thing or two about prison makeup and crazy prison stories. Drawing on eyeliner with a Sharpie isn’t exactly as fun as OITNB would have you believe, according to real-life convicts. Many former female cons are coming forward about the reality of their penitentiary beauty routines.
While prisoners who wear makeup must get creative to come up with a lot of DIY alternatives to their usual beauty products, they don't always use safe or easy practices. For some inmates, feeling feminine and taking pride in one's appearance is worth the risk of wearing contraband prison makeup.
One former inmate, who calls herself "Princess," talks about many of her old beauty tricks. She mentions that vinegar is good as a toner, and oatmeal is good for DIY face masks. Princess also suggests that eyeshadows can be made with watercolor paints, and that hair dye can be made with Kool-Aid powder. Hemorrhoid cream also helps prevent wrinkles.
Inventiveness like this is normal in prison. Most makeup is contraband and prisoners aren't allowed to alter their appearances in ways that make them unrecognizable.
Ex-con Princess says that only a handful of makeup items are available behind bars. It's rare to even find a powder foundation or a liquid concealer. Some commissaries don't even carry face creams or moisturizer. Princess mentions that her commissary offerings changed every six months or so, thanks to a committee of black and white prisoners who controlled inventory in rotating intervals.
Princess explains how she'd have to plan ahead: "I used to stock up during those six months because I knew I couldn't get what I wanted for the next six months after that."
Some critics question why prisoners need access to makeup. Others argue that makeup and self-care are critical for prisoners to feel worthy and normal. After all, women in regular society are conditioned to find self-worth in their looks and to pride themselves on maintaining appearances. Founder of the Women's Justice Initiative Deanne Benos, explains it like this:
It’s just like a trick. We send these messages to them in public [...] and put them into a setting where we don't allow them to practice the self-care that will ideally help them when they return back to society, to their families, and to our communities.
It is against prison rules to alter one's appearance with dramatic makeup, but jailhouse officials look the other way when inmates rebel. Guards only crack down on certain beauty practices that can be particularly threatening.
For example, inmates in many prisons aren't allowed to receive letters that contain lipstick or smeared makeup because makeup has been know to contain LSD or traces of other drugs.