Continuing off Monday’s post, a few more thoughts on hair, teenage social behaviors, and identity:

Immediately below, one girl does another’s hair at Spofford Juvenile Center  in New York (now closed).

I’m from Queens. I was picked up when I ran away from my group home. I’ve done that a lot. There’s too much drama there. Later this month I’ll be going to Pleasantville.

– D, age 14, getting her hair done.

The girl doing D’s hair is J, who is also 14 and was also picked up for running away from a group home, a different one. Her mother visits, her dad doesn’t live at home. They both wear the same institutional-phlegm-green jumpsuits. Doing each other’s hair becomes not only a grooming routine but a form of entertainment and socialization. The girls chat and crack jokes and laugh. The process is comforting, familiar. Their mothers used to braid their hair. Now, they fill long hours braiding each others.

I don’t know what to tell you. I have a baby… I’ve been here for six months and I’m getting out in September.

– M, age 19 at New Beginnings Juvenile Rehabilitation Facility in Laurel, Maryland.

The two women that were scheduled to come in to do more extensive braiding cancelled and two young barbers on contract from a local barber college were enlisted to fill the gap. Several of the kids, such as M, have dreads, others have corn rows and were disappointed with the change in schedule.

New Beginnings puts special emphasis on self expression and dignity. They were the only facility we encountered which had turned one wall in each boy’s room into a chalk wall. Staff encouraged the boys to draw on them to gain ownership of their room. At New Beginnings, most of the young men wear collar shirts, as opposed to sweats or jumpsuits. This significant step-up in dress empowers the young men to be present, as opposed to the almost stupefying effect of wearing what is essentially pajamas, all day.

The facility is relatively new and was built at a cost of $44 million, which may seem extravagant to some. Supporters argue that the non-punitive architecture in combination with good practices employed at New Beginnings are saving lives. They also note that the treatment is cost-effective in a brief period of time. How much does hair expression have to do with these claims? We can’t know for sure, but it allows these young men to make choices about their appearance and gives them some individuality in a relatively homogenized setting. What do you think? 

3 thoughts on “Hair and identity (part 2)

  1. It’s hard to be inspired to improve yourself, or even just to keep going if you don’t have individuality. A chalk board and a collared shirt is a small start but an important one. I also like to think of the facilities as a “New Beginning” as opposed to hiding them away from society.

  2. Keith,
    You make a good point that seems to be more or less understood at New Beginnings– it’s much easier to look towards self-improvement when you feel like an individual. I think that for institutions, cultivating this feeling in their youthful offenders means many things: helping them feel like unique and different people, offering them dignified options for achieving that, and providing them with individualized attention. Some of these are symbolic and some must be put in place with policy. It’s pretty amazing how different the vibe is in places working towards a culture of dignity vs. those that are maintaining the status quo.

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