We’ve all heard the grim statistics about prison recidivism. 75% of all released inmates will be arrested again within five years. More than 50% of those will be arrested during their first year outside. If prisons are meant to steer inmates away from lives of crime, they’re obviously failing.
There is, however, one very simple glimmer of home. A solution which has proven effective time and again: Education. Studies show that inmates who took part in classes had a 43% lower recidivism rate. That’s a pretty dramatic swing. And it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be chasing a master’s degree, either. In fact, trade schools have proven incredibly effective at giving ex-cons a future outside of the criminal justice system.
Enter Valley State Prison’s beauty school — where inmates are trained in cosmetology. The program was launched in 1996, when the facility housed female inmates. But after the population turned over and the prison became male, the school didn’t go away. In fact, it continued to thrive.
“It encompasses doing hair, coloring, cutting, and then we do nails,” says cosmetology instructor Carmen Shehorn. “Everything that they would have to do outside in the regular cosmetology school, they have to do here.”
The program’s rigorous approach is important: The degree awarded is the same as that given to cosmetology grads on the outside. It allows them to start careers as entrepreneurs in a profession that has proven resilient even when the economy is soft. It’s optimism-inducing to think that this program, a sort of fluke, can help people turn their lives around while making people happy.
“When you can make people feel better just by your work,” explains James Sellers, a student and inmate, “it makes you feel good, you know?”