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Wash, Rinse, Redeem: A Look Inside A Beauty School—In A Men’s Prison

“Out there cutting hair, nobody asks what your record is”

THE FIRST TIME Andrew Jones got busted was after stealing a car in Placer County, California in 2003. He was 23, and after being found guilty theft, served eight months in prison. Five months after his release he was arrested again for stealing another car and sent back to the inside. A year later, he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance while armed with a loaded gun, resulting in more prison time. From 2007 to 2015, Jones was arrested three more times for vehicle theft. Now 36, he is serving yet another stretch, this time at the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, a dusty blip of a town roughly 200 miles north of Los Angeles. But this time, he says, things are going to be different.

“I got three years left,” Jones says as he's gently brushing the auburn strands of a vacant-eyed mannequin head. “Now it’s just baby steps.”


Inmate Andrew Jones is training for his cosmetology license at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California

Jones’ own dark hair is perfectly coiffed like a barber from days past. His powder-blue prison uniform stands out against the candy pink tiles of a unique beauty salon, located inside Valley State Prison. It looks like the kind of vintage parlor where a church lady would go to get her weekly wash and set.

“Out there cutting hair, nobody asks what your record is as long as you have a good rapport, good communication skills, and good people skills,” Jones says, his voice nearly drowned out by the whirring of hair dryers and salon chatter. All around him are his fellow inmates, many of whom are defined as “sensitive needs,” which includes convicted murderers, sex offenders, ex-gang members, as well as repeat career criminals like Jones. The individuals here are either studying to become licensed beauticians—a rigorous training process of six hours a day, five days a week—or are there to enjoy the salon’s range of services as the beauty school's practice clients.

Three of the 27 students currently enrolled in the prison cosmetology program

The certificate and license that inmates receive at the end of the curriculum are the same ones given to matriculating cosmetology students on the outside. Hairdressers often rent chairs in salons as independent contractors, which means even a hairstylist with a prison record has an increased opportunity for entrepreneurship. With that comes a legitimate chance at having a career and earning a decent, middle-class living upon release.

The existence of a cosmetology school inside of Valley State Prison is a coincidence of history. The program launched in the mid-’90s when Valley State opened as a women’s facility. The idea was to teach job skills to female inmates so they could better reintegrate into society. The program included the how-to's of hairstyling, plus the full menu of spa treatments, such as facials, pedicures, and manicures (including the more advanced gel and acrylic nail applications).

In 2011, the Public Safety Realignment act enabled the early release of thousands of low-level offenders across the state. Thousands more were allowed to serve out their sentences in county jails. Because many of these offenders were women, the decision was made to convert the now underutilized facility to house male inmates. When these new inmates arrived, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chose to maintain the cosmetology program. It currently boasts a 100 percent graduation rate—one of the highest of any prison education programs in the country.

OF THE 700,000 PEOPLE RELEASED from U.S. prisons each year, more than half will likely re-enter the system within 36 months—partly due to the lack of job opportunities for ex-cons. Prison education programs may be the key to reducing recidivism for men like Jones, who are part of a revolving door of crime and punishment. But there’s debate about which kind of education works best: traditional classroom studies that result in a degree or vocational programming.

Pupils must pass a series of tests to earn board certification as a licensed beautician

“I think we shouldn't try to cram anyone into a certain box,” says Scott Budnick, a prison reform advocate who left Hollywood after producing films such as The Hangover to found The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that lends support to the formerly incarcerated. “There is a huge need for vocational programing for those that don’t have a high school diploma or GED, don't want to go to college, and prefer working with their hands. Vocational doesn’t always have to mean you’re doing construction, welding, or pipe fitting.”

Budnick points to skills-focused prison education programs such as The Last Mile, which started in San Quentin State Prison and teaches inmates how to code without using the internet, which California prisoners aren’t permitted to access. “Inmates are learning all the languages that actually get you hired,” he says. “They are positioned for an $80,000-a-year job once released.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]If you want to have four times the chance that someone is going to come home and be a productive citizen … you invest in giving them an education behind bars.[/quote]

A 2013 report by the research nonprofit RAND Corporation found that inmates who receive a college education in prison have a 43 percent less chance of recidivism. The findings also show that each dollar spent funding prison education programs reduces future incarceration costs for taxpayers. But just 50 percent of federal prisons offer vocational programs. “If you want to have four times the chance that someone is going to come home and be a productive citizen—not harming somebody, not victimizing somebody—getting a job, raising their family, paying taxes, contributing, being of service, helping kids,” says Budnick, “then you invest in giving them an education behind bars.”

Trainees learn a range of spa techniques, including facials and pedicures

BACK AT THE SALON, working next to Jones is Marcel, another one of the 27 students currently enrolled in the Valley State cosmetology program. His large frame is hunched over the tiny stool he’s sitting on as he studiously paints the toenails of an inmate who has come in to enjoy some time off from the electrical vocational program. In front of Marcel are several pedicure stations with small foot-soaking tubs at the base of plush chairs. Each is occupied by an inmate (referred to as a “client") who is in the caring hands of a cosmetology student. On a typical day, dozens of men will sit back and get their pores exfoliated and cleaned, nails shaped and buffed, and hair cleaned up. “Every day is a challenge,” Marcel says as he delicately massages the soles of a client's foot. “It’s best to do something with your time and have something to show for it, regardless of where you’re at.”

All the tools of the trade are present, both strewn about tables and in the hands of the students: sharp scissors, searing flat irons, and pointy manicure utensils. At the end of each day, they are counted and stowed away. If one item goes missing, the entire facility goes on lockdown. But in the program’s three years of operating in a men’s facility, that has never happened. For inmates, classes are a welcome interlude from the boredom of life behind bars. “It’s like a break from prison, because of the way the free staff interacts with us and we interact with each other in here,” says Daniel Bezemer, who works the front desk. He was the program’s first male graduate. Michael Cowels, a fellow clerk, adds, “We have a lot of trust issues in prison. Coming here breaks down barriers." Cowels then pauses, textbook in hand. “This place makes me feel free,” he says.

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