Meet The Woman Changing Prison Return Rates — Through Beauty

Tammy Kennedy is the founding director of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's cosmetology program in Oregon. Over the past 16 years, she's helped 89 women graduate with their cosmetology licenses. Only six students have returned to prison after being released — which is one third of the national recidivism average. With unprecedented increases in women behind bars in the U.S., the value of programs like this are gaining new attention. The following interview was told to Lexy Lebsack and has been edited for length and clarity.
Getting Into Prison
The cosmetology school I went to in Salem, Oregon, didn't teach its students how to do textured hair. But I wanted to learn, so after some asking around, I ended up training with the cosmetology teacher at the local men's prison. Years later, I heard that they needed an instructor, and I ended up getting a job there. I worked there for five years until it closed due to budget cuts. In 2002, I applied at Portland Community College, which is the contractor for vocational training at Coffee Creek, and I was hired to start the cosmetology program. There were a lot of programs for men at the time, but there weren't any for women. We started from scratch: Just a room and a chair.
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Fresh Start
The students start at 6:30 a.m and work 1o hour days, four days a week. The point is to educate the women in all aspects of cosmetology — hair, nails, and basic aesthetics. When someone comes to prison, they're starting out with a strike against them, so I think that it's important for us to give them the best education they can get and to teach all the newest techniques
When they leave here, they will be licensed by the State of Oregon so they can go out and get jobs so they don't come back. We want them to be successful and take care of themselves and their families. My students are dedicated to changing their lives and they rise to the occasion. When I interview them for the program they all tell me, 'I'm ready, I'm ready to be different. I'm ready to be a better mom, a better wife, a better mother, a better sister.'
Check Point
Security [in prison] is really important for everyone; it's important for the students, it's important for the clients, it's important for me. Part of that is making sure the tools are all accounted for, that they don't go somewhere else in the facility where something could happen with them. We have tool cages that have shadows behind each item, and hair color is in a locked cabinet because it could change their appearance [which is closely monitored and might require new identification]; I also monitor all of the hair color.
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Two students practice gel polish application.
Appearance Matters
When a student starts school, there's an expectation that they do their hair and makeup for class. I tell them you have to suit up and show up every day. You need to come prepared like you were going to work in a salon. Don't just put your hair in a messy pony; I come in with my hair and makeup done every single day, so I say, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'
This is a profanity-free zone and they don't talk about criminal activity when they're in here. I'm trying to prepare them for success. Would you talk like that to a client when you're in a salon? If not, then you can't talk like that here. We work on that every single day, as well as the things that brought them here, trying to let go of some of those things to be the best person they can be when they leave.
Caring For Clients
Anyone from the general [prison] population can come into the program for free services. A lot of self esteem is lost when women come to prison. Being able to color their hair, do their nails, and those types of things help to restore a little bit of that.
Tattoo removal is a huge buzz around the institution right now, because we're trying to get a tattoo removal laser; there's a lot of people that have tattoos that they regret, whether they are gang-related, domestic violence- related, or drug-related. Being able to remove that part of their past is huge, and they're very excited about it.
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Life On The Outside
"I have a binder called 'Tammy's Success Stories.' I have some students that have gone out and gotten really nice jobs and are doing great with their careers and rejoining their families. I had a student that, when she first started the program, was like, 'I don't wanna do this or that.' But we kept with it and she worked really hard, and when she left here she opened a Paul Mitchell partner school. One student just opened her own salon.
There are lots of students that start really down and out, but then they pick themselves up and realize that they can really do this! People make mistakes, but now it's, 'What are you gonna do to change that and bring it to a positive in your life?' You can't change what happened, but now you can change where you go forward from here.
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