Changing Lives: Women’s Prison Offers New Course That’s Giving Inmates Skills For A Better Future


Anyone can end up behind bars. Sure, the statistics will tell you who are most likely to find themselves in trouble with the law. For some, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. It took one moment, one bad decision to alter their lives forever.

Society can be unforgiving of those convicted of a crime; those with a felony on their record are immediately disqualified from many jobs. For the past thirteen years, Elsa Lumsden has taught cosmetology courses to women in prison, changing their lives in the process; giving them hope when there once was despair and opportunity and self-confidence when many of these inmates gave up on themselves.

The Beauty Therapy course at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) provides inmates the chance to become qualified cosmetologists so they can find work on the outside.

The course doesn’t just give these women a chance to find employment after leaving prison, it grows their confidence: “I never looked at prisoners in a negative way, if they have support and the tutoring and mentoring they can be great people,” Lumsden said in an interview with Barcroft.

Inmates aren’t allowed physical contact, but during the course, they can touch each other. The contract gives them the ability to complete the 1600 required hours they need before taking the state board examination to become licensed cosmetologists. the women learn how to give haircuts and pedicures and everything in between.

Sheila John was convicted of first-degree burglary nine years ago. She received a 10-year sentence for her crime. She admitted at one time, she didn’t see any light at the end of her time behind bars.

“I chose to do bad in here. I was rough; I was getting in trouble. Being in cosmo and seeing that I can get licensed gave me a drive to change,” John said.

Barbara Chavez is serving life without parole for her part in a robbery turned murder. she confessed the idea of serving such a long sentence took away all her hope.

“But when we get here, after being broken, after coming from abuse, coming from the street life, and knowing that we can actually accomplish something such as cosmetology to give us a career, it is very inspiring,” Chavez said.

Despite the possible danger she might face with the inmates in her classes, Lumsden hasn’t ever had any problems. The students handle the sharp instruments with care: “Some people believe that ‘oh you are no good that’s why you went to prison,’” Lumsden said. “But  sometimes it’s just that they are hanging with the wrong crowd at the wrong time, and they get  caught, but you can see the changes in many of them once they are in the class.”

The influence of the cosmetology course has proven effective. Former students have gone on to find work at salons. Some have even opened their own businesses.

And for those with a life sentence, the course is priceless: “These life skills have changed me. I came from nothing to something,” Chavez said. “I had zero self-esteem, I had zero confidence, I didn’t believe in myself. These life skills have given me hope. I am confident in what I do.”

People must pay for their mistakes. We all should have the opportunity though to redeem ourselves. We shouldn’t be defined by the bad we’ve done or wrong choices we’ve made. This course offers these women a lifeline and hope for tomorrow.