Jessica Kent’s Story: How Beauty in Prison Works.

“I was released from prison into a halfway house. I only had my prison shower shoes, a very worn-down bible, and my prison sweatpants that had my number on the side. That was everything I had in the world, and I was terrified. I worked a few jobs, and I saved up to get this Scion XB toaster box car that didn’t even have air conditioning, but I was so excited to have it. I eventually got an apartment 6 or 7 months after release, and it was a crap apartment. It didn’t even have a fridge, but I was like - “Well, I can’t afford food. Who cares?” But fast forward, I got a better job, and eventually, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree.”

“My name is Jessica Kent, and now I am a YouTuber and a TikToker. I work on mental health activism. I do motivational speaking. I share my story because I want to spread awareness about what prison is really like. Unless someone has been to prison, they don’t really know. I feel that prison reform is very tied to sharing my experiences in prison so people can know what the conditions are like.”

“There are so many flaws in the system. I’ve even been in a prison that denied tampons to women. Sometimes, they would deny our requests for tampons. In the last prison that I was at, they wouldn’t give out tampons if you asked. They would only give you 2 pads a day, and sometimes not even. To imagine these prison pads, you can’t wear them for 12 hours. You just can’t. Not to be graphic - but the blood will just sit on top, and the pad will irritate your skin. It’s not a good idea. We would make the pads into tampons just so we wouldn’t bleed all over the place. We could buy tampons, but they weren’t given to us for free. And if you didn’t have money, you were in a really tough situation. If you got a yeast infection, you were able to fill out a medical form or a “kite,” and you would submit that. The nurse would get back to you and put you on the schedule. It would take about two weeks to get on the schedule, but eventually, you would get treated.”

“As far as skincare products, we made our own. There’s absolutely no access to face wash. During my experience, there was treatment available for psoriasis, eczema, and cystic acne only if it gets really bad. You could go to medical and request a topical cream. Whether or not they had something like this depends on the facility and what resources the State has. For moisturizer, we had tiny, little bottles of water-based lotion called “lotion.” I remember how I didn’t want to put it on my face because I didn’t know what was in it, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Then, you’d get a bar of soap. Oh, and you have to buy all of these things. You can’t just get them for free. You had to buy soap and lotion. For a face scrub, I would make a coffee scrub to get the dry and dead skin off of my face. Afterwards, I would go in with lotion. We had such limited resources, and makeup looked like the absolutely cheapest things you could find, and it was sold for double the cost at the prison store. It cost a lot of money.”

“Makeup was a really big thing, and we would make our own. We wanted to look good and have a personality of our own. Even though we were in prison, we liked makeup for the same reason that we showered. We wanted to feel human. You can’t take the human spirit away. I knew that I was not free and that I was in prison. I knew that. But you know what, I still thought to myself - “I’m going to the chow hall today, and my eyeshadow will be bangin’.”

“Whether it was hairstyles, makeup, or taking samples from a magazine to make perfume, which was a very creative process of taking samples from a magazine strip and putting the oils in a bottle with a little water, we wanted a way to feel good. When we’re in prison, we’re called our numbers and our last names and that sucked. We wanted to be ourselves so we tried our best to look different and to have a personality of our own.”

“We tried to make beauty something that could belong to us because it was something we could control. Since we could control a little how we looked in prison, we hung onto it as ours. On the other hand, our health is something we had very little control over in prison. Getting a doctor, getting a diagnosis, and getting treatment were all out of our control. Makeup made me feel like - “I am Jessica. This isn’t “#711-548.” This is how I look. I’m not a number. As an inmate, you barely had control over your own body so the things that we did have control over meant a lot to us. If we looked better, we felt better.”

“For example, on visitation day, I saw women who wouldn’t ordinarily wear makeup put it on. It was such a cool day even though I never got a visit. Seeing them go from despair to happiness was good. We were in prison. That water hurts our skin, and that uniform is ugly, but I would see that change on their face as soon as they looked in the mirror, and they saw their eyeshadow, a little bit of mascara, and lipstick. It really changed how they feel about themselves and their day. Just from this experience, I think that makeup, treating people well, and allowing them to have a little bit of identity would make all of the difference in the world when we’re talking about prison.”

“There is no evidence to show that taking away identity, creativity, and health rehabilitates people in prison or lowers recidivism. The evidence is actually the opposite. When we belittle, put down, put people in situations where they don’t have access to hygiene products, and we treat them like sh*t, their chances of reoffending are very high. If we gave women access to tampons, hygiene products, cognitive behavioral therapy, and substance use treatment, recidivism would probably diminish. Instead, it’s all very harsh, and very little is provided so recidivism rates are up. We have enough data to understand that what we’re doing in prison right now isn’t working.”

“Do we need prison in our society because people are dangerous and violent? Absolutely, but we have to stop treating them like they’re the worst of the worst. We have to stop having an “us versus them” mentality. We need to help them reenter society. We have to remove those barriers. You can judge a society by how they treat their most vulnerable, and people in prison are the most vulnerable. Some people will decide to make a change and some won’t, but treating people like they’re nothing doesn’t encourage anything good.”

“A lot of women in prison are already from very abusive relationships and households. Even I once married a very narcissistic and abusive man. And in prisons, a lot of women struggled with that as well. There’s a lot of verbal abuse in prison, and the women that I did time with got very triggered because they’ve already had experiences with childhood trauma, sexual assault, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse. I mean - I was getting sober in prison. So, when you’re already not okay, getting treated like that definitely doesn’t inspire change. As I started to get older, I realized - “ I’m broken, and the women around me are broken and we’re all hurting and struggling.”

“I still met a lot of really beautiful women in prison from all backgrounds. In prison, there was still laughter, makeup, art, singing, and beauty trends because we were determined to feel human within. We did things to make us feel alive. We would sing in the dorms, or sometimes a woman would sing in her cells at night because you can’t take the human spirit away. We try to find our voice while doing our time, but after we’re released and “free,” we were still labeled felons.”

“Once we get out, we have to find a place to live, and we have to find a job. There’s very little help even when it comes to being able to afford food on the outside. We also have to pay parole fees and parole fines. We have to do so many things, and those barriers are very difficult. We are told that we can’t work in certain places. Certain apartments won’t rent to us. If we just removed that label of “felon,” “criminal,” “drug addict,” “junkie,” and reformed prison, I think it would help with morale. It would help women feel more comfortable to fight for a better life. I was able to, but there were so many barriers in place. If someone wants a better life or wants to see themselves in a new light, there shouldn’t be things in the system working to make that difficult.”