Prison Break

It's not quite charm school, but for these inmates, a little beauty softens the edges of hard time.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM | The St. Petersburg Times | December 14, 2006

Every day of her life, Roberta Huffman wears blue. It's a color she hates.

Felicia Nichols carries a cologne sample torn from a magazine in her shirt pocket, so she can smell the scent of a man.

Candy Semenuk can tell how long she has been in prison by how far her bleached blond hair has grown out: all the way to the tip of her ponytail.

Tonight they're sitting in a room painted pale peach. Backs straight. Heads lifted.

They put their hands under their chins, lifting. On the TV screen a ballerina talks to them about the importance of proper posture. "We are no longer in a position of weakness," the ballerina intones. "We are projecting an aura of grandeur."

In this concrete-block classroom, on Wednesday nights, the inmates of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution learn how to pick out a wardrobe. How to set a table. How to carry themselves with grace.

On the TV screen, the ballerina demonstrates how to get in and out of a car: Keep your feet together and your back straight.

Alma Turbyville, serving up to 75 years for three murders and an armed burglary, gives the TV screen a look of deep skepticism.

"Won't have to worry about that one for a while," she calls out. "I don't travel much."

***

It's a small class, about 12 inmates. The teacher is Judy Horobec, 66, a retired nurse. She teaches the class for free. When she tells her friends how she's spending her Wednesday nights, they laugh.

"They act like it's fluff," she says.

She hadn't intended to teach the class. That was prison chaplain Diane Marchman's idea.

The Hillsborough Correctional Institution is one of three "Faith and Character" prisons in the state, which means that it offers inmates an abundance of programs, mostly religious.

"Etiquette is a 'feel good' class," Marchman says. "They need that."

But she also hopes the things the inmates learn will "stick" if they ever get paroled. Maybe, she said, it will help keep them from coming back.

Horobec puts it more strongly. Etiquette, she says, is what lets us live together without killing each other. It keeps us human.

In that sense, her class might be the most important two hours of the inmates' week.

For the women, the class is a hope for the future, a connection to home. It also reminds them of what they've lost.

At night, Candy Semenuk lies in her bunk and thinks about the life she left.

She was a pretty blond, running her own cleaning business in Hernando County. She was looking for a man with whom to start a family; she wanted to have a baby before she's 40. She is 36.

When she talks about her crime, she swings from self-condemnation to self-pity. She has served 16 months for manslaughter after a drunken crash. She has more than three years to go.

In prison, a year is a "minute." The "free world" is a place distant not only in space but in time: the world as it was before the crime, the world as it will be after the penance.

Some nights Semenuk imagines the man who might father her children.

Maybe he won't want her now.

"I think I'm ruined," she says, "because I've been in here."

***

Another Wednesday night. Horobec has brought a friend, a cosmetologist named Sheila Gaskill, to talk about makeup and colors.

Chaplain Marchman is sitting in the class, too. From their school desks, the women joke with her and call her "Chap."

Gaskill starts off with a confession. "Like all of you I've had bad times and good times in my life. We all have our trials," she says. She married a man who "couldn't remember who he was married to." She lost a daughter to encephalitis.

The women listen respectfully. It's a good tactic. She has seen sorrow; she can be listened to.

Gaskill briefs them on the best cosmetic brands: Neutrogena, Oil of Olay.

"This lil' old company right here makes a product that sloughs off your dead skin cells," she says, holding up a bottle. "At night, you want Retin-A. It firms you. We need to tighten and firm our skin."

"We don't really have stuff like that in here," says Turbyville. She says she has been using a mixture of soap and sugar to scrub her face.

"That'll work," Gaskill says.

***

In prison, etiquette means don't hog the shower, don't hog the pay phone, don't walk in front of the TV.

Felicia Nichols has been inside a long time. She describes prison as "a bunch of cats all together, trying to get their own space."

The Hillsborough facility is the best she has been in. There's a display of inmate art at the entrance. The grounds have shrubs and trees and flowers. The women walk to classes and jobs in the open air.

Nichols works in the prison library. On her desk there she keeps three photographs she cut out of architecture magazines, each showing a different room. All the rooms are sleek and modern, with bold art on the walls. She points to them: My dining room, my living room, my bedroom, she says. My house.

Nichols always had a taste for finer things. It's partly why she sold cocaine, she says. It's partly why she's taking the etiquette class.

She has done 13 years for dealing crack, but it didn't seem like that long until this year, when she hit 40. She won't be out until 2027.

"I like to know about table settings," she says. "I like beautiful homes, beautiful dinners. I want to throw parties. I can throw them in my mind."

***

When Gaskill passes out the makeup, the class room is transformed into an eighth-grade slumber party.

The women giggle and catcall, swapping and trading, brushing makeup onto each other's faces.

Foundation. Face powder. Concealer. Eye shadow. Lipstick. Rouge. Bronzer.

"Oh, it feels so good," one woman calls out. "I wish we had these at canteen."

In the back of the room Huffman is quietly sobbing.

She can't speak. She covers her face. Her best friend, Turbyville, tries to explain: Huffman has been in prison since 1975 and she didn't recognize some of the products, and didn't know how to apply them.

These cosmetics are from a world Huffman has only heard about, a world of ATMs, cellular phones, pay-at-the-pump.

That world has gone on without her.

Trying to commiserate, another woman tells them she hasn't worn makeup since May 30, 2005.

"That's when they got me," she says.

Across the room, chaplain Marchman catches sight of Huffman. She crosses to her quickly, and they talk for a moment in low voices.

Then Chap commandeers the makeup and tells Huffman to close her eyes.

"Don't put a lot on," Huffman says.

"Shut up," Chap says.

Huffman tilts her face up to the light, like a child, and Marchman brushes powder onto her high cheekbones, eye shadow onto her eyelids. Thirty years ago, when she was convicted of murder, a reporter wrote that Huffman looked like a china doll. That face still shows under the sunbaked skin and graying hair.

"Look how pretty," Chap says.

***

In her bunk that night, Semenuk thinks about that evening's class. It was the most she can remember laughing in two years.

She had forgotten, for a few hours, where she was.

-30-

PHOTO: Melissa Lyttle