By Christopher Zoukis
Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California has a beauty salon. It started as a vocational prison education program in 1996 when the facility was for women only. Although it’s a men’s prison now, the salon, and the esthetician program, remain in place. It’s a unique way of learning job skills in the prison system, and it’s paying off big time.
In the Chowchilla facility, the salon offers training and services in every typical application you’d expect from a traditional salon. Inmates can get their hair colored, get waxed, and learn how to apply makeup and do facials. Clients are other inmates and prison staff. Students take 1,600 hours of instruction before taking a licensing exam from the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. Some of the graduates that have been released are working in salons, and some students discuss opening a shop with their fellow inmates.
Chowchilla isn’t the only prison with a salon. Mabel Bassett in Oklahoma, Rikers Island in New York City, and Coffee Creek in Oregon have similar vocational prison education programs.
While learning valuable job skills that can be put into a good-paying career are a huge draw of prison salon programs, the benefits extend far beyond that. For example:
- Confidence: How do you feel when you have a bad hair day? Not so great. How you look has a significant impact on how you feel about yourself. Something as simple as a bad hair day or a bad skin breakout can ruin your entire day. In prison, access to cosmetics and hair treatments are limited, and that affects how the inmates feel about themselves. A little pampering, hair coloring, and a facial go a long way. An inmate that feels good and has confidence is more likely to participate in groups and other team/educational sessions and tends to be less disruptive in the prison environment.
- Touch: Touching is discouraged in prison, but human contact is significant because it makes us feel connected, safe, and reduces stress. Many inmates have not experienced gentle or appropriate touching and in turn are aggressive themselves. In a salon environment, applying hair treatments, massage, facials, and manicures require gentle, appropriate touching. The salon can redefine how inmates perceive the act of the human touch.
- Entrepreneurship: A salon is one of those business ideas that can start with a few products and modifications to a basement and grow into a standalone business or even a chain. The potential is endless: the inmate could use his or her skills to support their family part-time or create a company that hires others and grows the economy. It’s also a job that requires ongoing training, which further increases the inmate’s skills long after they leave prison. (Of course, additional training means more money and confidence as the business grows too.)
When we think of vocational prison education programs, we often think of soft life skills, GED, or college programs. However, prison education is not limited to traditional means. It encompasses everything and anything that adds to the inmate’s ability to learn something that will help him or her prosper on the outside. Vocational salon training provides a pretty solution that has long-reaching benefits for the inmates, and their present and future clients.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.