Skip to main content

Making Over Their Lives: WCCW Cosmetology

August 3, 2018

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

woman getting her hair styled

An incarcerated woman styles the hair of another incarcerated woman sitting in a stylist’s chair. The women are students in the prison’s cosmetology program. (Rachel Friederich, DOC Communications)

See Photo Gallery

INFOGRAPHIC: The Price of Beauty

GIG HARBOR – Rollers, nail polish, and hair spray aren’t things Susana Gonzalez thought would save her life during her prison stay.

But the 30-year-old cosmetology student at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), says the program has helped her maintain sobriety and make plans for the future.

“I’ve made over myself,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had sobriety for eight years. I’m happy. Even though I am incarcerated, I feel free.”

Gonzalez is one of 20 incarcerated students currently enrolled in the program. The prison has a full service salon for students to practice basic haircuts, styling, perms, and various color techniques. They learn to perform manicures and pedicures. They also learn the ins and outs of customer service, record keeping, and how to run a business.

The students practice the skills they learn on other inmates at the prison. Inmates can make appointments during salon hours and pay for the services with their own money. In addition to women’s beauty services, the students learn how to perform male grooming services on mannequins.

The course takes approximately a year and a half to complete and is made possible through a grant from Clover Park Technical College.

To be eligible for the class, students must have already earned a GED and have at least two years left to serve on their sentences. They are also required to be at least 90 days infraction-free and remain major infraction-free during their enrollment in the program.

By the end of the course, students will have completed 1,600 hours of hands-on training. They will be eligible to take the state-approved practical and written exams after their prison release to earn their cosmetology license.

Job Demand

The job demand in the beauty services industry is expected to grow faster than average over the next eight years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Positions as hairstylists, cosmetologists and nail technicians are projected to grow by 13 percent. Jobs as skincare specialists are expected to grow by 14 percent during the same period.

The BLS says factors such as an increased desire to reduce the effects of aging and new emerging types of beauty services will likely drive job growth.

The median pay for manicurists and pedicurists was $23,230 annually in 2017, according to the BLS. Barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists earned $24,900. Skincare specialists earned slightly more, at $30,080.

Hope for the Future

Barb Frink has been a professional cosmetologist for 35 years. She’s taught cosmetology at WCCW for the past 11 years.

She says a lot of the women who enroll in the class start out with low self-esteem and often don’t see themselves as much more than the crimes they committed.

“A lot of them when they come in here, they’re shattered,” Frink said. “They don’t have much self-confidence or belief within themselves that they can do something like this. Then they set goals for themselves and as they move forward and achieve their goal, there’s just a huge change in their personality and confidence.”

Frink estimates she’s taught cosmetology to hundreds of women over the years. Sometimes she’ll hear back from former students who have gotten jobs after their release.

For example, Frink said, one of her former students got a job at a national chain of salons and recently earned a $5,000 prize for selling the most beauty products.

“If I teach even one woman how to stand on her own, take care of her kids, and have a career, then it’s worth it.”

Lacey Wheeler, 39, hopes to be one of those women. She has a little under a year left on her 50 month sentence for charges of identity theft and possession of a stolen vehicle. She’s set to graduate from the program in April 2019-- just two months short of her earned release date.

Her 19-year old daughter is also taking a cosmetology class on the outside. Since Wheeler began taking the cosmetology class, her daughter has visited more. They talk on the phone more. And they have plans to open up a beauty shop together after Wheeler’s prison release.

“My daughter is always excited to hear what I’ve accomplished in here,” Wheeler said. “A lot of times she has questions for me and we’ve become even closer. I just really want to change my life for the better and having a career like this is the way to do that.”