Inside the Mecklenburg County Detention Center’s walls sit five brand-new chairs between two pillars decorated like barber poles.
The county opened a barber school on April 1 for teenagers in pretrial detention at the jail in Charlotte, North Carolina. The school, called Ausie’s Barber School, is the first of its kind in the state’s jail system.
“I’m real excited about this program; it’s been a long time coming,” instructor Jeff Broadie told HuffPost. “We’re looking to have a grand time.”
The five incarcerated 16- and 17-year-old boys in the county’s barber program — who call themselves the “Fab Five,” Broadie said — spend four to five days a week learning how to cut hair, apply relaxers, do facials and master the art of grooming. Broadie, who owns multiple barber schools outside the jail, said he makes sure the teens learn theory and classroom work before they can start working on each other.
“You’ve got to know hair,” he said. “It’s more than just cutting.”
The students will rack up as many hours as they can before eventually applying to take the state exam to become licensed barbers, ready to work. North Carolina requires barber school students to complete 1,528 hours of course instruction before taking the exam.
Detention centers and prisons throughout the country have begun establishing beauty and barber schools as part of their educational training. A 2013 study showed that allowing incarcerated people to participate in academic and vocational programming reduces recidivism, or being incarcerated again, by 40%.
“Just because somebody went to prison doesn’t mean they’re irredeemable.”
Kenyatta Leal knows a little bit about that statistic. Leal spent about two dozen years in California’s prison system before he was released in 2013. During his time in San Quentin State Prison, he participated in a program called The Last Mile that brought businesses from the community into the facility to help teach corporate skills to incarcerated people. Now he works at the nonprofit to help continue its mission.
“Just because somebody went to prison doesn’t mean they’re irredeemable,” he said. “We all have redeemable qualities, and if we’re able to provide people with a framework for change and a support system and real-life opportunities that anyone could do ... we would be better off as a society.”
The Mecklenburg program also works with the community to pay for continuing barber school education if students do not finish by the time they leave the detention center.
“What we love about this is, once they have gotten their situation disclosed, if they’re going to return to the community, they can continue at any barber school in this city and we’ll pay for it,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Tonya Rivens, whose grandfather Ausie Rivens, the first black barber in Cornelius, North Carolina, inspired the name of the detention center’s barber school.
Sheriff Garry McFadden said a group he helped create called Cops and Barbers, rather than the county, will help pay for continuing education at an outside local barber school. The nonprofit works to bridge the gap between law enforcement and communities of color, citing barber shops as safe havens and vital institutions in those communities.
“Even if you do not have the money to complete barber school, we’re coming up with initiatives to pay for your tuition,” McFadden said. “We will get with the brothers at [the barber schools], we’ll put you in the barber schools, we will pay for your tuition.”
Incarcerated teens who get transferred into adult prisons can make sure their schooling doesn’t end at the detention center. Tonya Rivens said young people going into the prison system can get on the waitlist for a location with a school. The only prison — rather than jail — in North Carolina to have a barber school is Harnett Correctional Institution in Harnett County.
Similar to Mecklenburg, the youth detention center in Cook County, home to Chicago, opened its own barber school in 2017 called S.T.A.R. — which stands for Standing Tall Against Recidivism — Barber College. That program has room for eight students at a time, and the hours they earn at the detention center count at a traditional barber school.
“For me, it’s like a fresh start, and do something different, like I can help other people out doing it,” participant Damarco, 18, told ABC 7 when the program opened.
The barber schools are seen as an important tool in helping incarcerated people move forward in their lives and prepare to reenter their communities. A 2016 U.S. Sentencing Commission study said that incarcerated people released from federal prison before turning 21 had a roughly 68% rearrest rate, and those without a high school diploma were more likely to be rearrested than those with high school or college degrees.
The statistics make a case for education programs in prisons and detention centers in the U.S., a country that leads the world in incarceration, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
Rivens said local officials expect the barber school program to be even more successful than everyday education programs at the detention center.
“These soft-serving certificates … it does not get them a job when they get out,” she said. “Now you’re teaching them a trade that would be very prosperous along the lines of sustaining a living, because [a barber shop] is an institution in our community, and people until the end of time will always need a haircut.”
Broadie, the instructor, said the biggest consideration for him is building a connection with the boys and “keeping them focused,” as barber schools and shops are also considered places of mentorship.
“If I can reach them, then I can teach them,” he said. “By being in a program like this where there’s a father figure or a big brother figure, our jobs are to help them build character, be responsible and work together as a team. All that plays a part in helping them be successful.”
To help make sure students he mentors continue on the right track when they return to their communities, Broadie said he will keep an eye on them for about a year after they get their licenses.
“If I can reach them, then I can teach them.”
People who were formerly incarcerated often face an array of difficulties when reentering the community, according to a 2014 report on U.S. mass incarceration trends. They often deal with lower wages, denial of jobs and food stamps, and require support and encouragement from the community.
“When I was their age, I didn’t think I was gonna live past 25,” Leal said of the incarcerated teens. “I was looking at what was happening around me, my reality where I lived at. So in my mind, I needed to live it up right now while I had a chance. And I think that a lot of young people experience the same things.”
Ann Jacobs is the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Jacobs previously told HuffPost that reentry can be successful if a recently released person meets six basic life needs: livelihood, residence, family, health, criminal justice compliance and social connections. While those needs can show up in different ways depending on the person’s situation, continuing one’s education at a barber school and eventually making a living as a licensed barber helps secure some of those life needs.
“When you have a person who learns a trade and is able to develop this skill, building one’s self-efficacy and tapping into that human resiliency that we all have … it’s amazing,” Leal said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of reducing recidivism and breaking down the prison industrial complex, but it’s going to take this kind of work to do it. Because if we’re going to sit around and wait for the state to do it, it’s never going to happen.”
McFadden said that Mecklenburg’s barber school program helps restore dignity to incarcerated people who can often feel dehumanized in prison and detention. He hopes more detention centers implement similar programs and team up with the community.
“We want them to duplicate it. We want to reduce crime nationwide,” the sheriff said. “It’s true criminal justice reform, and that’s what we want.”