Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates team up with staff to aid Locks of Love

by: JOSH KULLA - Coffee Creek inmate Jennifer Hinde prepares to take 90 inches worth of hair from fellow inmate Leslee Blericom.  Cancer touches every facet of society, and a prison certainly is no exception.

The Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville has experienced a rash of cancer diagnoses in recent years, with both staff members and inmates receiving the dreaded news. In response, those unlikely allies banded together to do what they can to fight back.

On May 8, an idea that started as an inmate “kite,” or communication with staff, came to fruition in both wings of the state’s only women’s prison.

There, nearly four dozen inmates donated their formerly flowing tresses to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to low-income children suffering from long-term medical hair loss.

For inmate Heather Jones of Salem, her donation of formerly waist-length hair held great personal meaning.

“I had a niece a couple of years ago who was diagnosed with cancer,” Jones said. “She was 13 years old.”

The girl’s sole wish was to attend a high school prom. And despite her age, the Make-a-Wish Foundation was able to supply her with a hairpiece donated by Locks of Love. Wearing another person’s hair, she was able to attend her prom that spring before passing away two weeks later.

“If someone hadn’t donated hair to her she wouldn’t have been able to go,” Jones said.

Officially, the event was meant to pay tribute to facilities Maintenance Manager Susan Marlin, a long-time Coffee Creek and Department of Corrections staffer who was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer.

“My mom died of cancer 10 years ago,” said inmate Sandra Brammer, who lived in Veneta prior to being incarcerated. “And when I found out Mrs. Marlin had cancer, she really was in my prayers.”

Brammer is no stranger to Locks of Love, having donated her own hair on a half-dozen occasions in the past. So when she found out about Marlin, her thoughts naturally ran in that direction.

“I wanted to do something to honor her,” Brammer said.

But for six months she was unable to send a kite to the proper staff member. Finally, she talked with Tammy Kennedy, an instructor at Portland Community College who works under contract with the Department of Corrections teaching cosmetology.

“(Brammer) said several of us have been talking, and we would like to donate in honor of Mrs. Marlin,” Kennedy said.

As head of the prison’s cosmetology program, Kennedy leads a comprehensive school in which graduates complete more than 1,950 hours of coursework. This prepares them to qualify as state-certified hairdressers and facial technologists, assistance that is critical in helping them overcome the difficulty in finding employment upon release from prison. by: JOSH KULLA - Inmate Heather Jones, left, examines her newly trimmed hair, courtesy of inmate and cosmetology student Angela Kim, right.

Marlin is well aware of the “convict” stigma. It’s one reason she enjoys her role as a mentor helping women who, despite their criminal past, often have been themselves the victims of crime or abuse.

The outpouring of support on her behalf, she said, is humbling.

“I don’t deserve this,” she said, watching the cosmetology studio around her hum with activity. “There are other staff here battling cancer also. I just think I had a connection with the inmates.”

It’s inside Coffee Creek’s medium security wing, yet the smiles, hugs and even the odd set of tears belied that reality.

It was, Marlin said, vindicating to see the results of her work play out this way.

“I’m overwhelmed with the compassion and the outpouring of them wanting to be involved,” she said. “They all have their own stories, it doesn’t have to be about me. It takes all of our hearts, because it seems like (cancer) is an everyday occurrence.”

Within the first four hours of the collection effort, 1,396 inches, or 116 feet, worth of hair had been donated by inmates. That’s enough to make 18 hairpieces, said Coffee Creek Spokesman Nathan Cantlin.

That included hair taken from the head of inmate Ruby Sanders of Hermiston, who waited as fellow inmate and cosmetology student Diana Bunch of Newport trimmed and shaped her new bob.

“It’s a good summer look,” Bunch said, surveying her work.

“I just thought it would be something for me to do while I’m here to help other people,” added Sanders, who said both her mother and grandmother were stricken with cancer. “Plus I thought I needed a change.”

Across the room, Brammer looked at her own hair, which was cut even shorter by inmate Annette Thomas.

“This is the shortest I’ve ever had it in my life,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s all about giving. We don’t have a lot of ways to give in here, and staff and inmates both sacrificed to make this happen.”

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