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Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Inmate and cosmetology student Holly Bernhardt of Canton.
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State’s first DOC cosmetology program gives marketable skills, hope to Oklahoma female inmates

MCLOUD, Okla. -- Kayla Jeffries of Grove flicks her perfectly-styled hair as she talks about her life outside of prison. An inmate at Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud, Jeffries said she’s looking forward to the time when she can be reunited with her children while styling hair and doing makeup at a salon in Oklahoma.

“My mom said it was her dream for me to get my license, but it wasn’t something I had ever considered before,” said Jeffries. “This program means hope for my children. This really is a program of hope.”

Ashley Davis of Enid is serving her second prison sentence at Mabel Basset but says that learning to do cosmetology and eventually earning her cosmetology license while in prison will make all the difference for her when she is released in a few years.

“This is my second time in prison, and the first time I got out, I spent nine months not finding a job,” said Davis. “To be able to get out and have a job – that will make all the difference. I have three boys and they are so proud of me. I hear from my family all the time about how proud they are. This is life changing.”

At the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility, ladies enrolled in the cosmetology school at the prison wore pink uniforms, a bright difference from the normal gray outfits, and bragged about the school. The school, a collaborative effort between the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Re-Entry Investment and Student Education (R.I.S.E) program, is offering incarcerated women an education in the field of cosmetology.

The program is the first beauty school behind bars in Oklahoma, a state famous for having the highest incarceration rate for women, and it’s the only program that allows women to take their Oklahoma State Cosmetology exam while behind bars.

For the prison inmates attending the program, the school doesn’t just give them an employable skill. It also gives them hope for a brighter future when released.


On Friday, members of the Oklahoma Legislature, the DOC and the community attended an open house and reception at the prison’s cosmetology program. Greeted by pink-clad students offering plates of cookies and fruit, the guests heard first-hand from the students about the difference the program has made in their lives.

The program, supported through financial gifts, a grant from the AVEDIS Foundation and donated supplies, offers space for 20 women at a time in the one-year course. The women are required to complete 1,500 hours of instruction, and upon completion, they take the state exam, which allows them to receive their license prior to release.

In addition, the students offer services to other inmates at the prison and even to the staff. The DOC changed rules to allow for nail polish, so pedicures and manicures are allowed. So far, three women have already graduated the program with one other taking the state test that day.

RISE also offers job placement assistance, help with transitional housing and help with transportation, clothing and recovery support. Joseph Allbaugh, director of the DOC, said the program was vital in a time when the DOC reached yet another record number of inmates in the system.

“You not only have hope, but you have a path forward,” Allbaugh said. “You don’t have to just dream about it – you’re actually doing it.”

Christie Luther Downing, founder and executive director of the R.I.S.E. Program, said the school was a historic first for the state. In addition, the women who enroll in the program undergo a rigorous application process that includes a clean behavior record, letters of recommendation, an essay and more. Not every inmate is accepted.

“They get a free – yes, free – education,” said Downing. “As you can imagine, being the first in Oklahoma, the first in this yard, it’s a much sought-after program. In addition, the ladies in the yard who may not be in the program, but had a license and lost it can work to reinstate their license.”

All the students in the program are A students, she said, noting that the courses cover more than just cosmetology, but also physiology, anatomy and chemistry. The lowest average score in the group is 93.

“I hold the bar extremely high for these ladies, and I expect that they walk in integrity, and every one of them has met that high bar,” Downing said. “The cost of an education outside of the prison walls for cosmetology could be anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000. The actual cost to have each student here is approximately $7,000 to $8,000 and the cost to them is zero. These programs allow them to go out and get a job. They have the career tools ready for them.”

Start up cost for the Mabel Bassett program was minimal, according to Warden Debbie Aldridge.

Approximately $15,000 was spent mostly on plumbing and electrical for the “salon,” and the cabinets and benches were created by the maintenance staff out of recycled pallets.

“The cost of recidivism is higher,” Allbaugh said. “The cost to house an inmate is $19,000 to $28,000 a year, higher if they are 50 or older. The return on our investment is that if 10 of these ladies don’t come back, we’ve saved.”

Republican Sen. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma City was in attendance, as well as several other legislators like Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville), Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), Rep. Greg Baninec (R-Cushing), Rep. Tammy West (R-OKC), Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) and Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee).

Bice said the legislature changed the law to allow those with felony convictions to have a cosmetology license in 2016.

“We changed that,” she said. “This is an important program. It is a fantastic opportunity for these ladies to get a head start in reintegrating in society and starting their lives over.”


For the third time since December, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced another record number of 63,009 people in the department's system with 34,000 under probation, parole or other type of supervision.

In addition, more than 26,000 are incarcerated and 1,500 are in county jails awaiting transport to DOC.  

According to the study, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults” sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, offenders on average are less educated than the general population. For example, in 2004, approximately 36 percent of individuals in stateprisons had attained less than a high school education compared with 19 percent of the general U.S. population age 16 and over.

In addition to having lower levels of educational attainment, offenders often lack vocational skills and a steady history of employment, which is a significant challenge for individuals returning from prison to local communities, the report said.

“And the dynamics of prison entry and re-entry make it hard for this population to accumulate meaningful, sustained employment experience. Finally, the stigma of having a felony conviction on one’s record is a key barrier to post-release employment.”

However, the study found that we found that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not. These results were consistent even when researchers included the lower-quality studies in the analysis. This translates into a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points for those who participate in correctional education programs versus those who do not.

Rep. Babinec said he expected naysayers to be resentful of the educational opportunities given to inmates, but that education was key to reducing Oklahoma’s prison population and budget challenges.

“Programs like this are a must. We have to do things like this and move forward with doing things like this,” he said. “These women are doing the real work, and it’s a Herculean task to even get into the program. To be able to work out of here with a trade and go to work from day one, I just can’t calculate or imagine the savings that will come from these women being employed and the recidivism rate going way down.

“We are busting at the seams here, and so let’s give these folks a trade, get them back into society and make them productive. It’s incumbent upon us as a society to help those who are incarcerated so they won’t re-offend.

For the inmates enrolled in the program, reoffending is the last thing on their mind. Instead, they are looking forward to a career when they leave prison.

“At first I didn’t want to be in the program,” said Holly Bernhardt of Canton. “Now, I love it. I feel this is going to be good for me and my children when I get out.”

Davis said her dream would be to open a salon with her daughter and work side by side.

“We can have a family business… when I get released,” she said.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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