On a chilly December day at 26th and California, traffic bustles near the civil courts building and the enormous 20-building complex of Cook County Jail, which houses 10,000 inmates. Pedestrians brace themselves against the wind and cold, pulling on hats and opening umbrellas. The gray sky is spitting rain and large fluffy snowflakes.

But in a room on the second floor of a women’s division within the jail, it feels like August. A huge fan circulates warm air filled with steam and the scent of hair gel.

Five days a week, between the hours of 8 and 2:30, this place is brightly lit and brimming with activity. Four big dome hair dryers spew hot air from the corners of the room. Steam billows up from a row of sinks used for hair washing. A radio tuned to 107.5 FM blares love songs, hip-hop, and R & B.

At Cook County Jail, all women detainees dress in blue scrubs marked DOC–for Department of Corrections. But those who step away from the powder pink upholstered chairs also wear new hairstyles like “the wave” or “collision cut”–aka “the bald fade”–and quiet smiles. Those who emerge from beneath the dryers appear relaxed and rejuvenated.

At any given hour of operation, around 20 female detainees are either having their hair styled or awaiting appointments. “We call this the Magic Shop,” says Amanda Franklin, a detainee wearing dark, square-rimmed glasses and a new hairstyle with neatly trimmed bangs. “When people come in here, they be all tore up. They do a good job. On the street ain’t as good as these are here.”

Corrections officer Sandra Douglas sometimes oversees the shop’s black hardbound appointment book. “A lot of the women who are here come in on the new, and they’ve been doing drugs,” she says. “The wing officer decides who looks the worst, who needs this the most. You’re not forced to come here–you’re asked. But there are very few who don’t want to go. Most of them are saying, ‘I want to go.’ They love it.”

When it comes to facing a judge in court, a lot can depend on a woman’s hairstyle–even years of her life, which explains why hair appointments often correspond to within one week of court appearances.

“If you lookin’ bad, the judge says, ‘Look at you, you ain’t doing nothin,'” Franklin says. “This helps. It’s also better when your family see you. They come and say they can see people are taking care of you at the jail.”

Lynda Pinson, superintendent of Division Four for women, supports programs like the hair salon that encourage female detainees to build confidence and gain control over their lives. “If you feel pretty, you feel good about yourself, and you can think clearly,” she says. “The women don’t have to be tugging and pulling on themselves and worrying about what they look like in front of the judge.”

Her views are in line with many changes that the jail has undergone in the last few years to serve its burgeoning female population. In 1985 the jail housed 280 female detainees; in 1996 there were approximately 790. According to the August/September issue of the Key, a newsletter for DOC employees, “When Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan took office [in 1991], female detainees were not allowed to have bras. They were denied access to hair care and personal toiletries as basic as shampoo, deodorant and sanitary napkins.” Says Pinson, “Even if they go to the penitentiary because they were found guilty, women still have their needs. We don’t have to abuse her.”

Some of the services the jail has added for women include drug treatment and counseling, furlough programs that allow those accused of nonviolent crimes to stay overnight with their families, videos on parenting and personal health, access to high school classes, legal aid, prenatal health maintenance, and a women’s library. Though the jail opened its first of two hairstyling shops back in the 70s, in 1992 the salons started operating with regular business hours.

Denise Robinson, a detainee who’s referred to as “Spider,” works as a stylist in the jail, managing eight to ten appointments per day. She’s paid $12 for a week’s work, but like the other stylists, she may receive tips such as hand-rolled cigarettes. “We do this for something to do around here,” she says, dismissing the pay. “It can get boring. The best part for me is seeing a completed hairstyle, when they’re ready to go out the door and I’m done. When they’re satisfied, that makes me feel good.”

Though the salons generally operate like regular shops, there are some differences. Hair-color treatments are banned because a change in hair color is considered a change in identity. Certain other chemical treatments are restricted, though the shops do stock perms and hair relaxers. Shampoos and gels are purchased in bulk. Sanitary napkins are cut in half to serve as earmuffs to protect the women’s ears from dryer heat. All scissors are accounted for and locked away when the shops close.

The jail does take care to select detainees with experience to serve as stylists. Thirty-three-year-old Jackie Triplett has been grooming hair for men and women since she was 19. “She’s another Michael Jordan at her work!” her client pipes in while having her hair combed.

Robinson sees her work as important in helping her fellow inmates. “A woman’s hair is her crowning glory,” she says. “When you look good you feel good. It lifts self-esteem.”

A couple of chairs away another detainee, Bernita Bogan, who goes by the nickname “Black,” says she’s thankful for her stylist, whom she affectionately calls “Down Low.” “She’s cool because she’s always got a smile,” Bogan says as her hair steams up piping hot in the grip of a curling iron. “She’s laid-back. She’s got a lot of problems, a lot of heartache, but she always keeps it down low.

“If the jail hired people [from the outside] to work here, it’d be totally different. But by them being locked up with us, they’re going through it with us. It makes a 125 percent difference.

“Our superintendent realized that we are detainees,” says Bogan. “She sees us as women first and not the crimes we’re charged with. We’ve been charged with something, but not yet found guilty, so she gives us privileges. Within a month, everybody in the whole division can get into the beauty shop. She says we’re women and we must look like women.

“In here I’m F9660,” she says. “But after this I’m Black—Bernita Bogan. This makes you feel like you’re somebody.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Cynthia Howe.