Fairbanks prison and the secret life of beauty salons

Standing in front of the locked gate of Fairbanks prison for women, a voice calls out through the plastic box. The plastic box voice tells me to state the purpose of my visit.

My mind wanders back to a conversation I had with a volunteer prison chaplain. The women serving time here are not “hardened criminals”, the chaplain told me. Yes, these women have made mistakes, but they regret the mess they have made of their lives. And they are struggling to get their lives back on track.

Then she challenged me: Meet some of these women and find out for yourself.

This is how I came to be pressing the glowing button on the plastic box, telling an unseen guard that I am here for the beauty salon clinic.

Fairbanks prison has been teaching a cosmetology course to female prisoners for four years. And while most of the public is unaware of its existence, Fairbanks hosts a beauty clinic so everyday people can get their hair and nails done for a small charge on Thursdays and Fridays. Just a few weeks ago, the prison beauty clinic started offering its services to senior citizens for free.

Something happens to women in beauty salons. Even when women are strangers, the act of getting their hair done or choosing a colour to put on their toes brings them together. Gossip, hopes, secrets, they all tend to spill out. I was hoping the beauty salon at Fairbanks was no different.

While waiting for the guard to collect me, I look for some shade to break up the rising heat, but there is none.

The compound is small compared to the men’s prison on the other side of town. There is a grassy lawn here, but no one is milling about. Too hot.

Inside the salon, you would never know that you were in prison. The air is cool. The walls are red and pale green, painted by the prisoners themselves. Gauzy curtains drape the windows. The rooms are filled with refurbished equipment: hair dryers, rotating chairs, wash basins, mirrors and nail stations. Curling irons, hair relaxers, nail polish and lotions cover the shelves.

Two elderly Jamaican ladies come in. It’s their first time at this beauty clinic and they are here for the works.

“Ohh,” says Miss Beverly. “I am so blessed by the Lord for this wonderful opportunity. I am going to get everything done from head-to-toe.”

Her friend, Miss Pearl listens quietly as Miss Beverly goes on and on about manicures, and hairstyles and the Lord’s goodness.

Miss Beverly gets started at the nail station with a middle-aged Filipino woman, who puts her hands in a bowl of sudsy water. Security guard and cosmetology instructor Yvrose Barton puts on an apron and gets things ready for the clients coming in.

Before she was a security guard, she was a cosmetologist for two decades so she knows how to set the atmosphere. She asks the new clients Miss Beverly and Miss Pearl to call her by nick name, pronounced as “Eve”.

Eve turns to me and asks what I would be getting done today – a new hair style or colour?

I can’t bring myself to tell Eve that I am nervous about letting a new stylist touch my hair. She would probably laugh because it is usually in disarray. Nor can I divulge my fear about walking out of prison with a haircut that requires a blow dryer, a curling iron or more than five minutes to make it look good.

So I ask for something safe, a pedicure.

The young Filipino woman is silent as she directs me to a large comfortable chair and puts my feet in warm water. Her reddish short hair stands up straight around her face, emphasising long eyelashes and brown eyes. Her uniform is simple, a white shirt and black trousers, which only draws the eye to the oversized gold buckle around her waist.

I didn’t realise I was going to get someone that looks like a rock star.

“Lay back and relax,” she says.

She presses buttons on the console by the chair. I am startled when the chair starts vibrating. Hidden massage rollers move up and down my back, and black leather envelopes me.

She lifts my foot out of the water and rubs oil into my skin. She presses fingers into the bottom of my feet, and moves them up my calf muscles. The tension in my muscles floats away.

There are no thoughts of deadlines or bills or other responsibilities of daily life. There is only this moment of pleasure.

A female voice enters my consciousness. It starts out as a humming sound and builds to a low melody as she works on my feet. Ever since she was a child, love songs were her favourite.

She talks about playing music with her cousins at bars and restaurants at night. She tells me her secrets. About a man she used to sing with back home. She still thinks about him.

Have you ever been in love, she asks?

And then I tell her my secrets. About lost love, missed chances and running away. And the man I haven’t quite gotten over yet.

Rock Star closes her eyes and starts to sing an old Sheena Easton song.

“I’m almost over you,” she sings. “I’ve almost shook these blues so when you come back around after painting the town you’ll see I’m almost over you…”

Across the room, the nail technician cradles Miss Beverly’s foot in her lap as she files away dry skin. Miss Beverly is saying something about men in that knowing way all elderly church ladies have.

Rock Star asks me what colour I want. My favourite nail polish is tucked in my pocket. But I want her to choose.

She reviews the rows of nail polish and selects two bottles. I don’t peek while she is painting my toes. There is something liberating about letting your beautician take control.

When she is done, I look down. They are champagne with a shimmer of lilac. It is a fresh and young colour. I love it. And we laugh.

Then it is onto the manicure table. While my hands are soaking, Rock star inspects my eyebrows. They are OK she says, but I should consider eyebrow arching.

The older Filipino beautician thinks I need highlights in my hair. Shouldn’t I stay for highlights?

The conversation in the beauty salon jumps from subject-to-subject. All topics are up for grabs. New babies, movies and Olympic superstar Usain Bolt. At the mention of Bolt, Miss Beverly shouts out.

Like many Filipinos, Rock Star came to the Cayman Islands to work and send money to her family back home. But she also wanted to travel, experience different cultures and have adventures. Her family didn’t quite understand, but they indulged her wandering ways.

“Like you,” she tells me. And there it is – the unexpected connection. We carry the same wandering thing inside. It’s just somewhere in her path, she stumbled and lost her way.

She is due to be released from prison in a few days. When that day comes, she will be taken directly to the airport and sent home for the 30-odd hour journey back to the Philippines.

“Freedom is so close, you must be excited,” I say.

“Mixed emotions,” says Rock Star, looking over at the older Filipino woman who is painting Miss Beverly’s toes. The older woman has become a second mother to her.

“I have been here for seven long months. But she is here one year and some months,” she says.

Prison can be a lonely place and they have given each other strength. She doesn’t want to leave her here alone.

But Rock Star’s second mother is determined to show a cheerful face. The older woman has three more months to go. She knows that when she gets back to the Philippines, Rock Star will be there along with her other daughters to welcome her home.

So the older woman puts on a bright smile and tries to convince Rock Star that she will be all right.

Rock Star finishes off my French manicure with a quick dry spray.

“I think it will be six months,” she says. “That is my turning point to pick up the shattered pieces of my life.”

“Love life, family life, financial, emotional, everything, so shattered.”

“When I go back, I am going to look for him,” she says. And I know she is talking about the man she left behind two and half years ago to try a different life.

I can only nod. We are both hopeless romantics.

The hair dryer blows loudly. Both styling chairs are occupied by other female clients.

I gather my things to leave the salon. Miss Beverly calls out to her friend.

“Miss Pearl, we are going out tonight. Where do you want to go?”