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Life Inside

What I've Learned Cutting Hair in Jail

“They look tired, ragged, and sick, more so than they thought they would.”

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I get sent to the hole all the time.

Not because I’ve done something wrong, but because I’m the barber, which means I’m also the best friend of every guy in there. I cut everyone’s hair, from murderers and rapists to first-timers put in for a fight. When you enter the hole, it’s a new world — one that smells like death and shit. Men are hollering at the top of their lungs to be let out.

Inmates in the hole get haircuts only once a month, and also on the day before court — so when I’m there, it’s a special occasion. As soon as they hear the door to their unit pop open and see me coming in with my supplies, everyone starts cheering. All you can hear is, “DRE, WHO’S FIRST?! I’M FIRST! ME NEXT!” I let them know that I’m not leaving until everyone gets a haircut. Then I take out my things and get to work.

I arrange my stuff by the guard’s desk, getting the clippers and brushes positioned, and stacking the hard, red plastic chairs on top of each other to get a little more height (I don’t have a barber’s chair that I can pump up and down). Then the officers start to bring people over one at a time.

Since they’re in the hole, they have their arms and legs shackled whenever they’re outside their cells. As soon as they sit down, the first thing I do is take out my mirror and give it to them. For most of the inmates, it’s the first time they’ve seen their reflection in a month — and they’re always shocked. They look tired, ragged, and sick, more so than they thought they would. Lots of them will say something like, “Man, I’m dead, can you bring me back to life?”

That’s exactly what I try to do. Haircuts in jail are supposed to be a “one-guard” buzz cut against the grain, but I’ll ask the guys how they want theirs done.

And we talk about all kinds of things, just like at the regular barbershop. The difference is, everyone I’m working on is trying to find out what the news is instead of swapping it. They want to know what’s been happening in the outside world, if their team won, what’s going on on their old unit. They talk about how they miss their kids.

A little over a year ago, I remember watching television and seeing that one of Washington D.C.’s police officers had been arrested for rape. Because it was a high-profile case, and because he was a cop, I suspected he would probably be housed in the hole. I thought about cutting his hair. During my time in jail, my youngest daughter was raped, and it filled me with rage. I couldn't be there for her, and now I despised every rapist. The prospect of cutting this guy’s hair was more than I could take.

When the day came for me to actually do it, I was nervous. Every other inmate told me simply not to cut the cop’s hair, and as the guards finally brought him out, the whole unit was yelling at me from all directions.

As soon as I saw him, I wanted to crack his head open until it bled.

When I started, I was a little rough with his head. It was clear the guy wanted to talk, but I just cut him off, asking him how he wanted his hair. He felt my vibe and started trying to make up for it by talking even more — saying that he didn’t do it, telling me he knew how I felt.

I stopped, looked him in the eye, and said he probably didn’t want to know how I felt. I told him about what happened to my daughter. He started crying, snot coming out of his nose. We didn’t talk for the rest of his time in the chair.

The worst part was, when I finished, I think that he had the best-looking haircut out of everyone I did that day.

No matter who they are, when I’m done cutting an inmate’s hair and show them the finished product, they don’t want to let the mirror go. They’ll keep looking at their reflection, saying they finally feel like themselves again. Lots of times, they’ll offer to pay me, but I’ve never taken a dime. Sometimes the guys will joke around, saying, “You know I’m going home as soon as the judge sees this cut!” The guards will occasionally have me come in at irregular times, just to keep the peace — when it’s been too long since they’ve had a haircut, the men down there will throw piss and shit at the officers or break the sprinklers in their cells. The thing is, a cut means more in prison than it does on the street, and that’s especially true in the hole. These men don’t get to talk to their families, don’t get any visits, and live in a cage for 23 hours a day. If they’re lucky enough to go outside, they’re only allowed to sit in an outdoor cage.

After three years as a pre-trial detainee, I finally got sentenced and now I’m waiting to hear where they’ll send me. Wherever it is, I’m hoping to take my clippers. Every prison is full of guys who would love to feel more human.

Andre Lyons, 40, will be transferred from the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington D.C. to a federal prison. He pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to distribute drugs and was sentenced to seven years.