Lakesha Williams, a prisoner at the Prince George’s County, Md., jail, had to make a choice that, to most people, would seem obvious. She could be released from jail, where she was doing time on an assault charge, or stay an additional 60 days.
She chose jail over freedom.
“They told me my [sentence] reconsideration came up. I could get out the next day,” said Williams, 24. “It wasn’t really a tough decision for me because I know what I want.”
What she wants is a career in hair, and the Prince George’s correctional facility, outside Washington, D.C., offers a program unique among jails in the nation: a school for barbers who come out of the joint with jobs to go to and who, as a result, seldom wind up back behind bars.
Since it began eight years ago, the program has graduated 120 jailhouse barbers who have a recidivism rate of 15%, compared with 70% for the general jail population, officials say.
The inmates matriculate to such places as Fig’s Barber Shop, not far from the Addison Road Metro stop, where three graduates cut hair and are “doing just fine,” according to manager Ronald Weeks.
That comes as no surprise to Phil Mazza, 53, a third-generation barber who runs the jail barber school, or to his students and customers.
Before he started the program, contract barbers came in to cut inmates’ hair, and jail officials got nothing but complaints. Now the inmates line up to go to the barbershop.
“These are excellent dudes,” Kirk Brown, 28, said of the jail barbers. Brown, who is awaiting trial on a drug charge, had come for “a nice shape-up to look presentable before the judge.”
Said Anthony Keys, 38, jailed for violating his probation on a drug charge and now sitting in Williams’ chair: “It’s like a rare sunshine to come over here and see Mr. Mazza. He always has a smile.”
Inmates pay $3 for a “shape-up,” $4 for a beard trim or $6 for a haircut. No tips are allowed. “The tip is you don’t have to pay for the program, and [you get] a job,” said Monique Hood, 29, who is doing time on an assault charge arising from a domestic dispute.
Mazza is always close by to help. One recent day, he took over briefly for Joshua Hart, 21, convicted of robbery, to improve a “temple taper” on inmate Paul Nichols, 31, who comes in at least twice a month.
“See how I got that line there?” Mazza asked his student. Then, to the customer: “Thank you. Appreciate your coming over.”
Mazza’s brightly lighted shop looks remarkably like most barbershops.
There’s a barber pole decal on the door. Inside are eight chairs and three shampoo sinks. There are mirrors, a radio and magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens and Consumer Reports.
“When I put the program in, I wanted to create a shop environment, not a jail environment, but a realistic work environment, like outside,” Mazza said. He started the program after touring the jail and realizing that he could teach the inmates and help solve a local barber shortage.
Up to 10 orange-garbed inmates at a time, accompanied by guards, are brought in according to housing units, and they leave the same way. But while they are in the barber’s chair, life seems almost normal.
“Explain to your barber how you like your hair cut,” Mazza tells the inmates. “We don’t use any profanity in here, and that’s it.”
The conversation is quiet, barely audible over the radio. It’s about kids, the future, jail and the outside world, most recently the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
The students also learn how to cut women’s hair and to give permanents, which are offered once a month.
Tuition is free, and students get a set of barber tools. They are not permitted to take the tools back to their cellblock, but they can take the tools when they are released.
Students ask to be in the program, and to qualify they must be incarcerated for at least 41/2 months. Inmates convicted of most violent crimes are disqualified. Once admitted, they learn more than how to cut hair.
“He’s teaching them punctuality, pleasing the customer, cleaning up after yourself,” said Vicki Duncan, a jail spokeswoman. “He works on those people skills more and more, along with giving them a trade.”
Barbers need 1,200 student hours to become state certified. Once students complete 850 hours, Mazza places them in a work-release program for the rest.
After they graduate, Mazza tracks them for 18 months, calling the shops for the first year, then checking to see whether they are back in the corrections system.
“I thank God for this class,” said Michael West, 50, who is completing a sentence for cocaine possession. “Hopefully, with the help of Mr. Mazza, I’ll be able to get out and be productive in life and not sell or do drugs.”
In early September, Williams said: “If I had a chance to go home tomorrow, I would stay and finish this class. That’s how good I feel about it.”
A week later, that chance came. And she stayed.