why won't we let transgender inmates wear makeup?

Investigating the politics of lipstick in prison.

by Alice Hines
28 September 2015, 3:55pm

VICE is exploring America's prison system surrounding our special report with President Obama for HBO, that features the historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

In the 13 months she was incarcerated, Melanie Lett, a cisgendered woman in a New York State women's prisons, learned how to make eyeliner and mascara from toothpaste, eyeshadow from colored pencils, hair dye from pen ink, and blush out of clear deodorant. "You have to be really creative," she told me. "These little things make you feel better."

In the 21 years Michelle Kosilek has spent so far in prison, she's been creative, too. She's combined Chapstick, red ink, and Vaseline to make lipstick, used floor wax and sharpie as nail polish, and chalk and lotion as foundation, she told a reporter visiting her. Makeup made her feel better because it let her outwardly become what she always knew she was inside: a woman. It didn't go over so well at MCI Norfolk, though—a men's prison near Boston where other inmates called Kosilek a "freak" and "faggot." One prison official worried that allowing make-up could lead to inmates escaping, and Kosilek was disciplined for wearing it. Twice, she tried to commit suicide.

When I started researching makeup in prison, I expected to find stories that wouldn't be out of place on Orange is the New Black, where Sophia, a transgender inmate in a women's prison, offers weaves, makeovers, and a break from monotony to fellow inmates in her salon. In real life, many transgender women inmates are housed in male prisons, where they're punished for wearing makeup. In Georgia, Ashley Diamond, while serving part of a 12-year sentence for burglary, was disciplined for shaping her eyebrows by her warden, a man she says called her names like "he-she thing" and refused to transfer her to a safer facility after she was sexually assaulted. In Wisconsin, Donna Dawn Konitzer was denied a bra because it was against the rules of her male prison. Instead, she was given a painful vest designed to hide unwanted breast development in men, which "crushes [her breasts] against [her] chest wall." In California, Shiloh Quine finally had makeup tattooed on "so that she would be able to present a more feminized face to the world and it could no longer be removed against her will."

Eventually, all of them sued, with the above claims detailed in court filings. In the lawsuits, these inmates sought the right to express their gender identity through grooming and dress, as well as, in some cases, gender-reassignment surgery. Their names will be familiar to anyone who's followed the heated debate around the procedure. In August, California agreed to pay for Quine's surgery, the first time ever such a settlement was reached. What's gotten less attention is the part of Quine's settlement that guarantees transgender inmates across California access to personal care products and clothing that matches their gender—also a first. At least one other state recently adopted a similar policy unprompted by a lawsuit: Since June, Pennsylvania has allowed its transgender inmates to buy barrettes, makeup, and gender-appropriate underwear.

In many of the lawsuits, inmates said their inability to access makeup caused severe psychological trauma. Donna Dawn Konitzer attempted to castrate herself six times while incarcerated at men's facilities in Wisconsin. Pointing out that she had been administered hormone treatment but denied female underwear, hair removal lotion, makeup, and her request to be referred to using female pronouns, her lawyers wrote: "It is an act of sadism to develop a prisoner into a female and then forcibly treat that individual as a male."

Konitzer is serving a sentence of 123 years for armed robbery. Quine, the California inmate, and Kosilek, the Massachusetts inmate, are both serving life sentences for murder. These ugly pasts make it hard for some on the outside to empathize. "He is in there because he murdered his wife," former Massachusetts US Senator Scott Brown said of Kosilek. "There are no luxuries that are supposed to be available." In Wisconsin, conservative lawmakers passed a bill in response to Konitzer's case, forbidding the state from paying for any gender-reassignment surgery or hormone therapy—what they called "bizarre taxpayer-funded sex change procedures" and "prison extreme makeovers." (It was later struck down in court.)

But makeup is a far cry from surgery: One costs a few dollars, the other tens of thousands. A limited selection of makeup is usually available for purchase in female prisons (though not everyone can afford it) and prohibited in male prisons, according to Jennifer Orthwein, a senior counsel at the Transgender Law Center, which represented Shiloh Quine. While Sophia on OITNB is housed in a women's facility, rules on housing vary, and transgender inmates are often placed in prisons based on the sex they were assigned at birth. As the defendants in Konitzer's case reasoned, feminine clothes and cosmetics in male prisons provoke sexual violence. "It is seen by all inmates as an open invitation to compete for that person's attention and invites assaults," they argued.

Doctors and transgender advocates, meanwhile, say that the expression of one's gender through things like clothes, hair, and makeup is a medical necessity. Along with hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, it's one of three widely approved means of treating gender dysphoria, the clinical term for people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. Because transgender people are incarcerated at a much higher rate, the issue of treating gender dysphoria is pressing: One survey found that 16 percent of transgender people had been incarcerated during their lifetime, compared to 2.7 percent among the general population.

Among cisgender women in female prisons, makeup holds psychological importance, too. I talked to several former inmates, including Melanie Lett, who said that cosmetics, whether purchased or homemade, helped them maintain a sense of dignity. "People think if you've committed a crime you don't deserve dignity, but it's important for successfully reentering society," noted Keri Blakinger, a former inmate and prison reform advocate. Female prisons traditionally take a more rehabilitative approach then male prisons, according to Barbara Zaitzow, a professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University, and access to makeup is part of that. However, she says, female prisons also have a track record of subtly enforcing normative views of gender, with programs designed to teach inmates cosmetology and other "appropriate" female vocations. It's perhaps no surprise that makeup is now caught up in efforts to enforce gender norms among transgender inmates, albeit by banning it rather than making it available.

Slowly, some of this is changing. Shiloh Quine, whose case prompted the settlement in California, will receive surgery later this year and be reassigned to live in a women's facility. Other transgender women in the state will soon be permitted to buy makeup thanks to her lawsuit. Quine doesn't need it as much as she used to, though: hers is still tattooed on.

Related: The Uphill Battle to Make Prisons Safer for Trans Women


Text Alice Hines
Image by drburtoni via Flickr Creative Commons

Orange is the New Black
America Incarcerated
Laverne Cox
alice hines