In prison, the little things matter.

In part, that might be because the big things don’t exist. There are no concerns about getting fired or being evicted or making it to your aunt’s funeral. None of that’s happening. All the tough moments in life, all the decisions you have to make — you suddenly can’t.

You have no agency. At least not when it comes to the big things. Instead, you focus on the little things.


For women, one of those little things is makeup.

There’s no one to impress, and everyone’s wearing the same thing, but in New York state prisons, there were relatively few regulations surrounding the use of makeup, so some of us went all out.

There were the classics — thick eyeliner, jagged lipliner, dark lipstick.

But then there were also trends like wearing different color eyeshadow on each eye or drawing elaborate henna-like designs with eyeliner. (There were some limits there, though — guards put the kibosh on designs so intricate they could be disguising gang signs.)

Makeup wasn’t just a beauty ritual; it was one of the few remaining outlets of self-expression we had. Prison norms blurred the line between sticking it to the Man and buying into a symbol of patriarchy.

Of course, some facilities didn’t allow makeup. But that didn’t mean there was no makeup to be worn; it just meant we had to get more creative.

But, more importantly, it meant that each hard-won stroke of makeup was a painted symbol of rebellion. An eff you to the system.

In county jail, such feminine accoutrements were entirely verboten, but when visiting days rolled around — or when a random wave of boredom hit — women figured out ways to make do.

Every cell block was equipped with a set of colored pencils, most purchased from the commissary and left behind by inmates past. But a lot of the time those sets were missing certain colors: brown, black, blue, sometimes purple. The prime makeup-making shades were undoubtedly hiding in someone’s cell, pilfered in the name of vanity.

With a little hot water and a lot of determination, certain pencil brands made passable eyeliner and eyeshadow. Bad brands resulted in an undesirable clown-like effect, but some people were willing to settle for the sake of staking a claim in the field of contraband makeup.

Jailhouse mascara looked equally comical, but the effect was a little more consistent and not so dependent on brand quality.

Step one: Break apart a black pen and pour the ink into a bowl.

Step two: Mix in toothpaste.

Step three: Spread this minty fresh mess onto your eyelashes by whatever means possible.

Step four: Remember this is not waterproof and, whatever you do, do not cry all day. (Yes, the no-crying dictum can be a major stumbling block in jail, especially on visitation days.)

Another useful commissary item: Fireball candies. If you put a little water in your palm and rub a Fireball around in it, the result is something vaguely resembling rouge.

Again: It sometimes looks like circus makeup. But we didn’t really care. Because makeup wasn’t just about appearances — especially in the places where it was banned. It might have looked like a mishap to everyone else, but to us it looked an awful lot like a middle finger.

 

Bookmark Gray Matters. There’s no one to impress, and everyone’s wearing the same thing.