By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno
Scroll down for the full story
Videographer / director: Elie Khadra, Robert Donald
Producer: Sophia Rahman, Ruby Coote
Editor: Thom Johnson
Elsa Lumsden runs the Beauty Therapy course at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), providing the women at the prison a way to gain their qualification in cosmetology and find jobs on the outside.
Elsa, who has been teaching for around 13 years, told Barcroft TV: “I never looked at prisoners in a negative way, if they have support and the tutoring and mentoring they can be great people.”
Many of Elsa’s students go on to full-time beauty work once they are released, with one former inmate contacting Elsa to say she now owns her own business after leaving CCWF.
The central-California facility is the largest all-female prison in the state, and currently houses almost 3,000 women serving sentences for everything from burglary to felony murder.
And although inmates are not usually allowed to touch each other, Elsa’s curriculum provides 1,600 hours of hands-on experience and teaching – with guidance on haircutting, permanent waving, manicure, pedicure, facials, and makeup.
After completing the course, inmates are eligible to take the state board exam and, if successful, receive their license to practice cosmetology.
It’s this focus on providing the practical skills needed for work in the world outside the prison that makes Elsa’s course so valuable to inmates who would otherwise be hopeless.
Barbara Chavez, one of Elsa’s students, was a victim of an abusive relationship before turning to crime. She is now serving a life without parole sentence under the Felony Murder rule for being a lookout during a fatal shooting.
Barbara, who has already served 20 years of her sentence, said: “I love the beauty industry. And coming to prison with such a long sentence took away any hope that anybody could have.
“But 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.
“It made me believe in myself. It gave me hope.”
Barbara isn’t the only one who has found hope through the course. Sheila John was convicted of first-degree burglary nine years ago, and says she couldn’t see the light at the end of her 10-year sentence when she first arrived at CCWF.
She said: “I chose to do bad in here. I was rough, I was getting in trouble. Being in cosmo and seeing that I can get licensed gave me a drive to change.”
Testimonies like these demonstrate how Elsa and her teaching is having an obvious positive impact on the inmates. But Elsa ensures she never forgets she’s working with potentially violent offenders.
She said: “Dealing with inmates is a little different because we know they’re inmates, and we don’t second guess – an inmate is an inmate. So we are very careful of scissors, of tweezers, any sharp implement.”
Thankfully, Elsa has never had a violent incident in her classes – an achievement which speaks to the calming and constructive nature of her course, and her willingness to look beyond the ‘offender’ label.
Elsa added: “Some people believe that, ‘oh you are no good that’s why you went to prison.’ But sometimes it's just that they are hanging with the wrong crowd at the wrong time and they get caught, but you can see the changes in many of them once they are in the class.”
The course leader’s optimistic attitude to her students has had an obvious impact, with Sheila referring to her teacher as “an amazing woman.”
Another inmate, Susan Ferguson, has found the course provides benefits in other ways. Attending as a client and receiving a treatment from inmate Kalena Olsen, Susan said: “My treatment today was absolutely magnificent.
“I have never really felt special, so that’s been a dream. I would want someone to take care of me and pamper me and make me feel that I am deserving. A lot of the time people don’t treat me that way.”
Besides making inmates feel special, and providing practical skills to those looking to better themselves, the cosmetology course is giving motivation to others whose futures remain uncertain.
Barbara, who is serving a life sentence without parole, is resolute that she will leave the correctional facility one day and share her new-found skills with the world.
She said: “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.
“I have faith that I will go home regardless of having a life without parole sentence. I am going home. I am going to take this to the streets.”
Whether it’s providing life skills or helping inmates get through their sentence with some purpose, Elsa is just pleased to be able to help.
She said: “I’m very proud of them. To see where I can help turn criminals into someone who is making something good for themselves.
“If they have support and the tutoring and mentoring they can be great people because I have seen it.”