It used to be that when people thought about plastic surgery, they considered it a luxury reserved for those in the very top tiers of society, such as celebrities and socialites. Today, thanks to lower prices and more surgeons, plastic surgery has become more accessible to the middle class, and though it is still often thought of as a luxury, an increasing number of Americans have undergone plastic surgery procedures.
What many people don’t realize is that despite its lofty reputation, plastic surgery wasn’t always for just the wealthy. It has a lesser-known history of use on an unlikely segment of the population: prisoners. In the 1950s, a Canadian plastic surgeon named Dr. Edward Lewison had an idea. Lewison believed that if prisoners looked better, they’d feel better about themselves and acclimate better into society upon release from prison.
Lewison tested that theory, performing over 450 rhinoplasties and other procedures on prisoners in British Columbia’s Okalla Prison.
"The surprising yet wonderful thing is that it worked," says Dr. Ryan Mitchell, a plastic surgeon in Henderson, Nevada. "The men who underwent plastic surgery returned to prison about half as frequently as prisoners who had not received surgery."
So, what could be responsible for this dramatic drop in returns? A study conducted by criminologist Kevin Thompson in the 1990s produced some theories.
"Thompson’s study found that many of these prisoners felt as though they’d been dealt a bad hand in life because of their appearance, and when they were able to correct their flaws, they were given the confidence to start a new life," says Mitchell. "The surgeries may have changed outsiders’ perception of the prisoners, but my personal belief is that the boost in confidence the prisoners received from their new look empowered them to believe they could live a better life."
Though most of the surgery programs were canceled in the 1990s, Mitchell is still a firm believer that by changing your look you can change your attitude.
"I see it every day with my own patients," he says. "These are just ordinary men and women who are unhappy with some element of their appearance, and when they’re able to fix it, it can be life-changing."