How Prison Salons Are Giving Inmates New Hope

Within the concrete walls of Valley State Prison, a medium-security facility located in Chowchilla, California, exists a tiny oasis of whirring blow-dryers and warm-water scalp massages, populated by students eager to learn the delicate arts of gel manicures and hair dye.

According to a January 2017 study, more than 100 state and federal prisons in the United States offer educational programs to their inmates (an important statistic considering that a 2013 study found that education reduced recidivism by 43 percent), and Valley State is one of them. The program began in 1996, when Valley State was a women’s facility. Sixteen years later, it became a men’s prison, and the salon classroom, fit for 30 students, remained. It became a prison beauty school for men — possibly the only one of its kind. “In prison, you’re not allowed to touch anyone,” says instructor Carmen Shehorn. “But the students learn to touch others gently and not feel awkward while doing it, and to compliment without crossing boundaries.”

The school offers training in “any service you would find in a salon,” says Shehorn, such as waxing, facials, makeup, and hair coloring. The inmates start with mannequins (which need to be signed out, along with tools like shears) and can later take on clients — other inmates and staff.

After 1,600 hours of classes and hands-on application, a student takes an exam administered by the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, and, if he passes, will leave prison with a license, ready to work. “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.”


According to a 2017 report, over 219,000 women were in prison at that time. These three beauty programs help female prisoners start to thrive.

Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility
Located in McCloud, Oklahoma, the state with the highest number of incarcerated women per capita in the U.S., the Re-Entry Investment Student Education program is the first cosmetology course in the state. The program’s support extends post-release — women get help with transitional housing, clothing, and substance abuse recovery if needed.

Rikers Island Prison Complex
Brooklyn-based hairstylist Heather Packer brought her nonprofit, Fearless Beauty (founded in India), to the U.S. this year. The six-month pilot program teaches 15 women at Rikers in New York City to cut and style hair.

Coffee Creek
Correctional Facility Oregon’s only prison for women, in Wilsonville, can include up to 20 inmates at a time in its Coffee Creek School of Cosmetology. The facilities house a beauty salon for students and a supply store where all inmates can get basics like shampoo and skin-care products.

A version of this article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Allure. For fashion credits, see Shopping Guide. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.

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