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This prison beauty school preps inmates for a career post-incarceration

At a California prison, inmates are learning how to do gel manicures, facials, perms and more.
Valley State Prison cosmetology program
Carmen Shehorn teaches the cosmetology program for inmates at Valley State Prison.TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Carmen Shehorn is one of our 2018 TODAY Style Heroes. Click here to see the full list.

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.

The beauty school within a prison is one of the vocational programs offered at Valley State, which used to be a women's prison. When the prison switched over to become a men's facility in 2013, administrators opted to keep the cosmetology program and see if inmates would sign up — they did, and today it is one of the prison's most popular programs, and there's even a waiting list to join.

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.

"A lot of the guys in here are going to go home," she told TODAY Style. "They're going to be your neighbors. They're going to be working at places and we need to give them the skills and ability to work, and the chance to work. Otherwise, they will fall back into what they were doing before and what got them in trouble."

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.

Inmates work on each other and also employees of the prison, putting them in a peculiar position: It's normally forbidden to touch staff members.

"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.

Skin care is one component of the cosmetology program, which usually takes about two and a half years for inmates to complete.TODAY

Since 2013, five male inmates have received their cosmetology license — a 100 percent passing rate so far, Shehorn said.

One of those men is Juan Brizuela, who was convicted of second-degree murder as a young teenager, and served 22 years of a life sentence. Now 37, he was released from prison on parole in November of last year, and works as an assistant at a celebrity hair salon in Pasadena, California.

"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."

Juan Brizuela graduated from the cosmetology program and was released from prison in November 2017. He now works at a salon in Pasadena, California.TODAY

"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."

In the class, Brizuela said the inmates were able to put previous squabbles behind them.

"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 shows students the ropes. She's been working at Valley State Prison since 2006.TODAY

Shehorn, who's worked at the prison since 2006, knows that people might be surprised by what she does.

"A lot of people are like, 'How can you work with the inmates?'" she said.

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."

But her proudest moments come at the very end of the journey: when inmates are no longer inmates.

"When they leave here with their license, that's the biggest reward," Shehorn said.