Valley State Prison beauty school prepares inmates for a career after incarceration.
On a recent afternoon at Valley State Prison in central California, male inmates buzzed each other’s hair into clean lines, filed fingernails smooth and performed facials, all under the watchful eye of their cosmetology professor, Carmen Shehorn.
The beauty school within a prison is one of the vocational programs offered at Valley State, which used to be a women’s prison. When the prison switched over to become a men’s facility in 2013, administrators opted to keep the cosmetology program and see if inmates would sign up — they did, and today it is one of the prison’s most popular programs, and there’s even a waiting list to join.
As Shehorn sees it, cosmetology skills are valuable for the inmates to learn, as there’s still a demand for those types of jobs “on the outside,” in prison parlance.
“A lot of the guys in here are going to go home,” she told TODAY.com. “They’re going to be your neighbors. They’re going to be working at places and we need to give them the skills and ability to work, and the chance to work. Otherwise, they will fall back into what they were doing before and what got them in trouble.”
The classes involve both classroom work and on-hands practicals in the salon, and inmates tackle everything from perming hair to gel manicures to eyelash applications.
“It encompasses everything you would have to do to get your license on the outside,” Shehorn said.
Inmates work on each other and also employees of the prison, putting them in a peculiar position: It’s normally forbidden to touch staff members.
“They’ll say, ‘Man, the first time I had to cut a staff member’s hair, I was shaking,'” said Lt. Ronald Ladd, a public information officer for the prison, who gets his hair cut at the salon there.
The program, which usually takes about two and a half years to complete inside the medium-security prison in Chowchilla, is accredited by California’s Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and inmates must pass an exam to receive their licenses. While anyone can request to join the program, they must be approved by a committee at the prison, and only those inmates who are a year or less from their release can take the exam.
Since 2013, five male inmates have received their cosmetology license — a 100 percent passing rate so far, Shehorn said.
One of those men is Juan Brizuela, who was convicted of second-degree murder as a young teenager, and served 22 years of a life sentence. Now 37, he was released from prison on parole in November of last year, and works as an assistant at a celebrity hair salon in Pasadena, California.
“Juan was one of the first students to get his license,” Shehorn said. “He was very quiet, very reserved when he first came to class. By the time he did end up leaving here, he was one of my (teacher assistants). He was very helpful.”
Brizuela, who “grew up in prison,” lives in Los Angeles and is still adjusting to a life that’s not behind bars.