A hand uses a blue razor to shave one's legs.
Illustration by Sarah Rogers

“Curtis, you want your razor?” 

The voice echoed through my cell, disrupting my solitary ruminations on the book I was reading. 

Had I heard that correctly? 

When I looked up, my eyes confirmed what my ears had disbelieved. An officer stood at the door of my cell. She was wearing latex gloves. In her hands was a slotted plastic board, where about 30 blue razors could be seen dangling. 

Razors, that is, for shaving.

It took me a moment to wrap my brain around the thought. The possibility of performing such a trivial task reduced me to dumbfounded silence. When I finally managed a slight nod, accepting the offer, the officer selected the appropriately labeled razor, placed it on the shelf formed by my open pie flap — a hinged opening in a cell door through which trays, mail and other items may be passed — and disappeared down the line to the next cell, repeating her query to my neighbor. 

I set aside my book and rose from the bunk, shuffling softly across the bare concrete floor. I stood for a moment, scrutinizing the razor, as if I had never encountered such an object before. 

I had arrived here, in the women’s segregation cell 8F11, of the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail only two days prior. But in the month since my arrest — a month I’d spent languishing alone in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in San Antonio, Texas, far from home awaiting extradition — I had not so much as seen a razor. 

The thick, dark hair carpeting my legs was soft. It provided, or at least I liked to tell myself it provided, an additional layer of warmth against the chilly, climate-controlled air blasting from the ceiling. But it itched and made me feel far from feminine. I was overjoyed at the prospect of being smooth and hairless again. 

In the dim light, I peered closely at the thing. It was a men’s razor, generic, of course — and surely manufactured and sold in bulk by the Bob Barker Company, like everything else in the jail. It had a single blade and no moisturizing strip, presaging the razor burn sure to come. Even so, I couldn’t have been more thrilled if it had been a Schick Intuition! 

I hastily removed my red scrub bottoms and folded them neatly, placing them at the end of my bunk. I perched my right foot on the edge of the steel commode, then grabbed my state-issued washcloth and bar of soap and lathered my leg. 

Then I began shaving.

As I stood at the commode, I thought about all that I’d experienced in the last month: I had been terrified beyond expression, berated, belittled, poked, prodded, weighed, measured and interrogated for hours. I’d been chained and fettered, ink-stained, photographed, caged like an animal and paraded before the public to meet their damnation. 

I had voyaged to the depths of despair and the threshold of Death’s lair, poised for the plunge.

And yet, there I was, standing in a cold gray cell, shaving. I almost laughed at the absurdity of my excitement and the inexplicable sense of hope I suddenly felt. I was struck by the way my short incarceration had changed me already: No longer was I the pitiful, haunted creature I had been the morning my past mistakes finally caught up with me. 

Though I was still far from healthy — just beginning to recover from addiction — the hand holding the razor was steady. The eyes that met my gaze in the mirror were clear and alert.

An hour passed. A few knicks, a handful of curses. Finishing up, I sat on my bed applying lotion — a generous gift from the lady in the adjoining cell — on the hairless legs of a brand new woman. That night I lay in bed relishing the caress of cheap cotton sheets sliding over my bare skin. I felt peace in my heart. Like the hair on my legs, something else was gone, I realized: the need to perform for another. My smooth legs were for my own enjoyment. 

In that cell, my life was mine alone. I smiled to myself in the semidarkness, marveling at the comfort I’d long sought elsewhere, and drifted off to sleep.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Mithrellas Curtis

Mithrellas Curtis is a writer, who strives to transform her life from one of pain to one with purpose. As a peer recovery specialist, she seeks to use her experiences to help others on their own journey to recovery and wellness. She is incarcerated in Virginia.