Giving a Blade to an Inmate

August 18 – Hobbs, NM. Of the many considerations that Maria Vick, Coordinator of the Cosmetology Program at New Mexico Junior College, had to ponder when approached with the concept of offering a barbering class at the local prison, the most important was this: How do you safely give a blade to an inmate who is possibly a murderer, a rapist, or some other violent offender? Many hurdles and several years later, she has found her answer as NMJC graduated its first Barber Class at the Lea County Correctional Facility.

It has not been an easy task. First, in order for NMJC to implement a barber class, in addition to their cosmetology program, the College had to obtain a special facility permit. Then, when it was determined that NMJC would also teach barbering at the nearby Lea County Correctional Facility, a special expanded facility permit had to be obtained. From there, endless considerations and accommodations had to be deliberated by scores of people before the program could move forward. And the constant thought in the back of Vick’s mind was how she could balance safety—for herself and her instructors—within a learning environment unlike any she had ever known.

When NMJC’s first Barber Class finally began in the fall of 2004 at the Correctional Facility, Vick admits it was somewhat tentative. “Imagine,” she said, “trying to teach in a room that has nothing but inmates who may have committed some pretty serious crimes—and there are no guards.”

Although the whole idea admittedly seemed “crazy” to her at first, she soon realized there was something special happening as the 30 inmates who volunteered for the program began attending class five days a week, four hours a day in the custom-built school provided within the prison. All training, hands-on applications, and required curriculum took place within the facility that Vick describes as “the ideal classroom,” referring to the fact that inmates were forced to make the most of their class time since they were not allowed to take textbooks with them. While this made studying for the testing process difficult, it forced the student-inmates to focus on the task at hand.

Instructor Miesha Jackson, who worked side-by-side with Vick, reminded the inmates daily that “failure was not an option.” The biggest challenge was not the lack of skills or experience or even the controlled environment in which they were forced to work; instead, she insisted, it was building the men’s self-esteem and motivating them to persevere.

In spite of their concentrated efforts, however, Vick said the inmates were faced with other setbacks as they weathered lockdowns and other problems associated with prison life. Typically, Vick explained, a barbering student can expect two years of instruction, which amounts to about 1200 classroom hours. Due to various problems they encountered, each graduating inmate recorded over 1600 hours before completing their educations.

However, the greatest concern was the test site where the student-inmates would take their final written and practical exams. Traditionally taken at the New Mexico Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists’ (NMBBC) test site in Albuquerque, the situation demanded a new approach. Faced with a reluctant Board, Vick diligently attended Board meetings and, through numerous discussions and reassurances, finally won them over. It was decided: For the first time in the 40-year history of the NMBBC, the Board would travel to administer the test.

When it was decided that NMBBC Chief Investigator Patrick Stewart would travel to Hobbs to proctor the exams, he was highly skeptical about the legitimacy of a group of convicts making the grade. But when his final report was submitted, Stuart made it clear that he was not only impressed but also extremely proud of the accomplishments of the six inmates remaining in the program. The reason? An impressive 100% pass rate.

When asked what the achievement meant to each of the inmates, the replies were revealing. Student-inmate Thomas Gallegos stated, “This program gave me something to look forward to for the future—because I will not be back in here again.”

Fellow classmate Raymond Franco saw it as a personal victory. “This is the first time that I have accomplished something that means bettering myself, and I am still speechless.”

James Efird admitted that when he first started the program, “It was just to pass time. Now I’m glad I stayed in it because now I’m a licensed Master Barber.”

For Jimmie Gordon, the accomplishment is a way to help others. “My plans are to open a barber shop and maybe employ my fellow barbers.”

Adam L. Cadena stated, “Although I still have some time left, I plan to continue my skills by working in the prison barber shop.”

When Raymond Peters received his letter, he feared the worst. “I was afraid to open the letter with my exam results in it, because most of the time, good things just do not happen to us. But guess what? I am now a licensed Master Barber.”

For Maria Vick and Miesha Jackson, it has been a hugely rewarding experience. And on Friday, August 18, they proudly watched at the Lea County Correctional Facility as the first student-inmates in the state graduated with their New Mexico Master Barber’s License.

As for Maria Vick’s question about how to safely give a blade to an inmate, she has found her answer. You give it with full faith in yourself and in the inmate, but mostly with faith in the transforming power of education.

New Mexico Junior College, 5317 Lovington Hwy, Hobbs, NM 88240
Phone: 575.392.4510, 1.800.657.6260

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