Beauty at Rikers
Quick thought experiment: Imagine doing your job, whatever it may be — designing websites, mixing drinks, writing ad copy — and doing it in jail.
by Carrie Law
And not just any jail: Riker’s Island, the New York City holding cell known for violence (by inmates and correction officers), poor living conditions, and years-long detentions even for the innocent. In short, for the average New Yorker, it’s a very scary place.
But not for Heather Packer, a hairdresser and chief educator at The Red Door and the founder of the nonprofit Fearless Beauty, a job-skills-training organization that seeks to help women uplift themselves financially, and personally, by learning marketable salon skills, joining a supportive community of teachers and trainees, and gaining the simple, therapeutic benefit of using your hands to make someone else look beautiful.
Since January until just last week, Packer has been traveling to the jail to teach what she always teaches — expert hair-washing techniques, scissor skills, styling methods — but this time within a special 24-week curriculum that she developed to give her Riker’s students an overview of cosmetology.
Over the course of the program, 39 Riker’s inmates joined the class, and Packer recruited other salon-industry veterans to co-teach. Not everyone was right for the project. “If I heard the words ‘fear’ or ‘scared’ within the first few minutes of talking to [a prospective teacher],” she recalls, “I’d say, ‘You know, I don’t think this is for you.’”
After getting her bearings the first day, Packer reports that she didn’t have any safety concerns working at the notorious jail. She stresses that some Riker’s inmates, the majority of whom are poor and black or Latino, are held at Riker’s literally for years simply while they wait for a trial, even if they’re completely innocent. The cause is usually money: they don’t have the means to post bail or hire a good lawyer to help them expedite the legal process. Others, of course, are eventually found guilty, while some inmates at Riker’s already have been convicted of crimes and are serving short (one-year-or-less) sentences. Packer says that this didn’t faze her. After working closely with her students, she says she came to realize that fundamentally, the women with dangerous pasts “are also just women,” that whatever incident had brought them there didn’t wipe out who they were as people.
After gaining permission from Riker’s authorities — who, Packer tells us, were supportive of the project from the beginning — Packer set up shop in an old, never-before-used cosmetology-training room at the jail. There, she says, she tried to foster a spirit of communication and collaboration. Because of how tough Riker’s is, women normally need to keep up their guard to protect themselves, keep their distance from other women, and not show vulnerability. But in the process of learning new hands-on techniques, Packer says, it was inevitable that they sometimes had to admit that they didn’t know what they were doing, admit vulnerability, and ask for help from the instructors as well as other trainees.
Soon a culture of helping and opening up formed in the classroom. Students started to become emotional, talking about their past and feelings; many felt free enough to cry. “Ah ha!” Packer recalls thinking. “It worked!” She says her goal all along hadn’t been just to provide vocational training but to help the women overcome personal barriers and envision a life beyond Riker’s.
Perhaps most poignantly, Packer says that Riker’s rules normally discourage inmates from touching one another, but in class, they were allowed to hug, show affection, and give each other facials and other salon services as practice.
With the success of the pilot program, Packer plans to roll out regular training programs throughout the year, as well as raise funds to help dedicated students go to cosmetology school for their license after they leave Riker’s. (Students who complete the 24-week Riker’s course receive a certificate from Fearless Beauty, but they still need to complete further training and become licensed by the state in cosmetology in order to work in the field.) She said she’s also hoping to help hard-working and eager students find other avenues, even if they don’t have a natural talent for cosmetology. (“Not everyone has a hand for hair.”)
To help Packer get closer to her goal, last month, Red Door hosted a benefit for Fearless Beauty on the rooftop of its flagship Fifth Avenue location. Adding a meta twist to the cocktail event, actress Alysia Reiner of Orange Is the New Black stopped by, as well as Red Door stylists and advocates for the nonprofit. Packer cheerfully tells us that she plans to continue to fund-raise and be back at Riker’s by the fall.