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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“I’ve had some hard times but I’ve also had some good times,” he told TODAY. “I’m surrounded by a lot of positive people in my life who support me, in and out of the salon.”
“At times I don’t believe the happiness that I have,” he continued. “I took that away from so many people. What gives me the right to be happy and successful?”
Brizuela knows he wouldn’t be where he is without Shehorn, and thinks of her as more than just a teacher.
“A lot of us looked at her as a mother figure, which a lot of us lacked in our lives,” Brizuela said. “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. It was learning about yourself and life and how humans really interact on a positive level with one another.
“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.”
“When we went to the classroom, we left all our prison politics outside,” he said. “We broke down racial barriers. We broke down gang barriers that we had built up over the years, and we just helped each other.”
Shehorn, who’s worked at the prison since 2006, knows that people might be surprised by what she does.
But it’s a “satisfying and rewarding” job for Shehorn, who earned her own cosmetology license in 1985.
“Some of the guys are here for some really terrible things,” she said. “But they learn and they study themselves and some of them really want to give back.”
“They’re actually doing the work,” she continued. “You’re seeing the changes in them and the coldness in the eye — it softens. It disappears. It’s just not there.”
“When they leave here with their license, that’s the biggest reward,” Shehorn said.