By Sophia Rahman
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Videographer / director: Elie Khadra, Robert Donald
Producer: Sophia Rahman, James Thorne
Editor: Marcus Cooper
Manicures, pedicures and facials are just some of the treatments practised and perfected by the felons incarcerated inside the walls of Valley State Prison.
Carmen Shehorn, tutor on the cosmetology course at the Chowchilla penitentiary, said she chooses not to ask what crimes her students are locked up for.
“It is a violent institution. There are lots of alarms and a lot of training on how to be safe and be aware of what’s going on around you at all times, so the very first day I started here, I came around the corner and saw all the inmates and was like ‘what did I get myself into?’” she told Barcroft TV.
“I don’t read their files because I don’t want to have a negative or preconceived image of who they are. I’m not here to punish them, I’m here to teach them a skill, so I want to start with a clean slate and then go from there.”
In order to qualify for their license to work as cosmetologists when or if they are ever released from jail, Carmen’s students must complete 1,600 hours of practical and theory work on hair cutting, colouring, perming, skin treatments, acrylic nails and more.
Benjamin, a former gang member who is serving time for voluntary manslaughter, said despite fellow inmates’ initial misgivings about people choosing to study on the course, it is now breaking down barriers.
“In prison, everyone thinks it’s a bunch of homosexuals on the course, but little by little, people start coming to the salon because they see not everyone here is like that, and the ones that are are good people - we’re just all people in here,” he said.
“I’m from southern California, and I’m in here working with people from northern California. In the prison system, as a gang member, those people are basically like your rivals and it’s a battle in here, but I’m working with everybody and I’ve got to meet some very good people.”
Daniel, who is 15 years into a minimum 21 years inside for first degree murder, said he was taunted by other inmates when they found out the course involved ‘girly stuff’.
“It was easy to be defensive at first, but as my skills grew it became a point of pride,” he said.
“They could tease me but I could tell they were a little bit jealous because we interact with the free staff in a way the others haven’t interacted with free people since their arrest.”
As the students are practicing their new skills behind the guarded gates of a medium security jail, fellow inmates and prison staff members are the lucky recipients of free hair and beauty treatments.
Michael, who is serving 23 years for murder, said he felt nervous when he gave his first treatment to one of the prison workers.
“Inmates are not supposed to touch staff, so when I first did, it was nerve-racking. We’re not supposed to even be too close to them, and not get too familiar with them, but throughout the course of time, I was able to do that in a professional manner,” he said.
Carmen said she has five former students who’ve gained their state cosmetology license since being released from prison, two of which have been hired by salons.
Michael said what a huge difference Carmen has made to their lives.
“She is very attentive and she loves helping people. Carmen is a great person.”
Benjamin said he plans to use his newfound skills when he has served his sentence.
“My career goal for after I leave here is short-term to become licensed and long-term to own my own salon or spa,” he said.
“I feel better because it’s something different that I’m doing. I’ve bettered myself through it.”
Daniel explained what a liberating experience giving treatments has proven to be for him.
“It’s like a break from prison in that when the people come in here, whether they be staff or inmates, they don’t treat us like we’re used to being treated,” he said.
“During that time you are free. For that moment you’re doing the exact same thing as someone on the street would be.”