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Hairstylists serving time offer an uplifting touch to fellow inmates

At Century Regional Detention Facility, hairstylists serving time give their fellow inmates a bit of glamour

The beauty salon is decorated in pink, pink and more pink — pink and white stripes on one wall, hand-sponged pink paint on another.

The vibe is feel-good girly girl, an adult version of a princess bedroom. Spelled out in large letters above a display of before-and-after photos are the words, "If you are confident, you are beautiful."

On this afternoon, Ginger Gonzalez is getting her hair washed and straightened. Mary Monique Ortiz is donating her long, dark braid to children with hair loss and having what is left styled into a bob.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Jail beauty salon: In the Dec. 4 Section A, an article about beauticians behind bars referred to the main character in the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" as Piper Kerman. The character is Piper Chapman; Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir on which the series was based.
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It could be a salon anywhere, except the clients are wearing pale green scrubs stamped "L.A. County Jail." So are their stylists, who efficiently lather, rinse, trim and comb.

No scissors are allowed, in case a feud erupts. Shags, bangs, pixie cuts and layers — all are shaped with electric clippers.

Small talk ranges across the usual topics, with a jail spin. Food — will the cafeteria be serving burritos, chicken patties or tamale pie? Shopping — the jail store is open on Tuesdays. Children — how old they are and how much they are missed. The future — who has release dates coming up.

The weather? Not so much.

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As a hairstylist in La Cañada Flintridge, Lilite Vardunyan charged $45 and up for a cut.

Here at Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, the main Los Angeles County women's jail, her fellow inmates get her services for free. On Fridays, her jailers are her clients, paying a bargain rate of $5 plus tip.

Puffs of steam rise as she runs a flat iron along a lock of Gonzalez's black hair.

Gonzalez, 29, of Pico Rivera, has four young children who are living with her mother while she finishes her sentence on drug charges. Her time at the salon is the jailhouse version of getting away from it all.

"Just being in here makes me feel real good, like I'm not in jail, really," Gonzalez says.

Elsewhere in the jail, there are no blow dryers. The shampoo from the commissary barely generates a lather. So it's worth waiting several months for an appointment — and steering clear of disciplinary infractions in the meantime to qualify for one.

Looking their best does wonders for their self-esteem, according to women in the 2,000-inmate jail, who are either awaiting trial or serving sentences, mostly for drug or property crimes.

Unable to ditch their jail uniforms or break the monotony of doing time, there is one thing they can change: their hair. One pair of before-and-after photos shows a woman with wild, matted hair, then with a smooth bob fit for a job interview.

Vardunyan and the other three jailhouse stylists all worked at salons on the outside. Practicing their craft amid the familiar sounds of splashing water and screeching blow dryers makes the days pass faster.

With few other luxuries in their lives, jail inmates make appreciative clients.

"The smile it puts on their faces, that means a lot," says Vardunyan, who was sentenced to four years for receiving stolen property. "They get teared up. They ask, 'Can we give you a hug?' "

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In "Orange Is the New Black," a key early scene takes place in the prison beauty salon. Piper Chapman, the main character in the Netflix series, has no money in her account, so she barters a lock of her blond hair, which another inmate uses in a weave.

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FOR THE RECORD

Dec. 4, 1:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this article referred to the main character in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” as Piper Kerman. The character is Piper Chapman; Kerman is the author of the memoir on which the series was based.

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The two largest women's prisons in the California state system have beauty salons that double as vocational schools, with inmates getting their hair and nails done by other inmates who are stylists in training.

In the Los Angeles County jail system, the Men's Central Jail has a barbershop. But for years after Lynwood became a women's jail in 2006, the inmates trimmed one another's hair in their living quarters using clippers provided by the staff.

For female inmates especially, a hairstyle shaped by a professional far surpasses an improvised look created by a dorm mate. Sometimes, a shampoo and cut will draw a mentally ill inmate out of her shell. And better morale means better behavior, which makes the jail easier to run.

"To enable an inmate to look forward to something like hair care keeps everyone calm and less likely to act out," Sgt. Andrew Bedogne says.

The salon opened in August 2013 with $1,000 from the hair care company Paul Mitchell and donations from another company, BaByliss, as well as money from the county's inmate welfare fund. It's managed by Brenda Resendiz, who was a hairstylist before she joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The salon has the basics — sinks, barbers' chairs, blow dryers — but the small space doesn't allow for chemical treatments such as dyeing or straightening. The stylists make do, using flat irons to painstakingly stretch out sections of kinky hair.

"They go back to their module, and they're just beaming," says Capt. Maria Gutierrez, who runs the jail. " 'I got my hair done' — what woman doesn't like that?"

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Sometimes, the salon comes to its clients. On the third floor, which houses mentally ill inmates confined to their living areas, two stylists arrive pushing a cart loaded with wild cherry shampoo and revitalizing conditioner.

The equipment here, in a common area surrounded by tiers of cells, is rudimentary. Lacking a shower nozzle, Stephanie Medina pours water from a large cup to wet an inmate's hair.

Medina, 25, was a hairstylist in Atlanta, charging $60 a cut, before she was sentenced to three years for her part in a drug trafficking scheme. She plans to go back to Atlanta when she is released and pick up her career doing hair.

She keeps her own hair straight using a flat iron. Except for the dark roots, her blonde hair with the jagged fringe wouldn't be out of place at a hip nightclub.

"This is a blessing, to be able to do what I love in here," Medina says as she pulls her client's hair into two tight French braids. "The girls really appreciate it. It's really like a get-away zone for us."

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Donating their long hair to Locks of Love, the children's wig program, is popular among the inmates. It will grow back, and in the meantime, the ladies at the salon are adept at short 'dos.

Ortiz's new hairstyle curves around her cheeks and tapers gently in back.

"Thank you, Alba," she says, hugging her stylist, Alba Chavez, who had 20 years experience at salons in East Los Angeles before her conviction on a drug charge.

Gonzalez inspects her own hair, now a smooth black curtain, in the mirror. She touches the back, then the sides.

"It looks really good. It feels so good," she says, standing up and stretching out her arms triumphantly. "Ta-da!"

cindy.chang@latimes.com

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