Beauty Behind Bars: How Cosmetology Instructors are Changing the Lives of Society’s Most Vulnerable

Future cosmetology instructors have the incredible ability to empower and change lives by teaching hands on, practical skills everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in prisons, where cosmetology teaching programs are uplifting spirits and helping the men and women behind bars prepare for successful lives once their sentences are complete. Here are a few of the instructors leading the way:

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Heather Packer is the leader of Fearless Beauty. Their mission? Reach out to the disenfranchised and empower them through the medium of teaching cosmetology. She began in 2014, giving vocational training to young women in Rishikesh, India, allowing women who are not usually allowed to work outside the house the opportunity to learn a trade styling hair. She was so inspired by the idea that beauty can heal and empower that she moved her initiative to the States. In January of 2018, she launched a cosmetology vocational course at the Rose M. Singer Center at New York City’s Rikers Island Jail. In the program, two instructors teach fifteen students all the basics of cosmetology, from hair care, to skincare, to nails twice a week for two-and-a-half hours. Once they graduate the 24 week program, the students are given scholarship support to continue their training and advance into the beauty industry. The results of this initiative have been phenomenal, and Packer is looking to expand to more prisons in the future, helping more women find themselves and find purpose in bringing a little more beauty to the world.

Female inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility practices hair styling. Photo Credit Refinery29

On the opposite coast of the United States in Oregon, Tammy Kennedy is the founding director of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's cosmetology program. Her program is rigorous and thorough--the students learn all the important skills for beauty, hair, skin, and nails for 10 hours a day, four days a week. She’s here to give them a real fighting chance at making it in the world outside of prison once they leave. “When someone comes to prison, they're starting out with a strike against them, so I think that it's important for us to give them the best education they can get and to teach all the newest techniques.” She’s inspired to help students who are keen to make changes in their lives and take responsibility for their futures. And her prison record is incredible: As of 2018, she had helped 89 women graduate with a cosmetology license. Tammy keeps a personal binder called “Tammy’s Success Stories” that documents the many successes who write in telling her about how their lives have been changed and how they’ve gone on to pursue successful careers in the fields of cosmetology and beauty.

Not too far away in Chowchilla, California, Elsa Lumsden runs the Beauty Therapy course at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). She truly believes in ignoring the tough exteriors and tough backgrounds, focusing instead on each student’s raw potential and innate ability to thrive with the right tutelage and opportunities. “I never looked at prisoners in a negative way, if they have support and the tutoring and mentoring they can be great people,” Lumsden said in an interview with Barcroft. Students here complete a rigorous 1,600 hour course, covering all the cosmetology staples and are able to take the state board exam so they are able to leave prison already licensed when their time is up. Testimony from her students speaks to how necessary her course is to them--how it provides hope, stability and a way out for women who've endured tough home situations, abuse, and worse. Even for students who will not pursue it as a career, it brings much needed support and uplifts spirits. “When we get here, after being broken, after coming from abuse, coming from the street life, and knowing that we can actually accomplish something such as cosmetology to give us a career, it is very inspiring,” said Barabara Chavez, who is serving a life sentence and may never have the opportunity to practice her new skills on the outside. “These life skills have changed me. I came from nothing to something. I had zero self-esteem, I had zero confidence, I didn’t believe in myself. These life skills have given me hope. I am confident in what I do.”

Carmen Shehorn teaches Cosmetology at Valley State Prison. Photo credit TODAY

Our last look is a little different, more unusual and unexpected--men’s prison. Instinctively, many would believe that male inmates would never go for such a thing, that it’s too feminine and wouldn’t be taken well. But they couldn’t be more wrong: The cosmetology program at Valley State Prison is thriving, and even has a wait-list to get in! The lead cosmetology instructor, Carmen Shehorn, is a role model and even maternal influence to the inmates that she’s been teaching since 2006. "A lot of us looked at her as a mother figure, which a lot of us lacked in our lives," says Juan Brizuela, who successfully graduated and earned accreditation to practice cosmetology on the outside, where he now works in a celebrity hair salon. "And that's what I appreciated about her the most. Just building that environment where we could feel safe and at home. It was much more than just learning a trade," he continued. "It was learning about yourself and life and how humans really interact on a positive level with one another." The racial segregation that rules everyday life behind bars is put to the side in the training salon. Men of all colors, from all different places give each other haircuts and practice manicures and pedicures on each other in an environment where they normally wouldn’t even speak to each other. “Five of my graduates have jobs in salons,” says Shehorn. “The [students] don’t always come in respecting each other, but they learn to. Eventually, you’ll hear them talking about opening a salon or barbershop together when they get out.” 

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These are only some of the incredible cosmetology programs offered behind bars throughout the United States. Teaching in jail isn’t for everyone, but if you’re looking to make an impact where it matters most, this may well be something to explore once you’ve completed your cosmetology teacher training here with us at Cameo Beauty.

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