Good hair day begins behind bars

8th August 2008 at 01:00

"It'll change my life," says Debbie, 39, talking about the HNC she is doing in hairdressing and barbering at Cornton Vale prison near Stirling. It is one of several projects highlighted in a joint report by the education and prisons inspectorates.

Debbie - not her real name - has waived her right to parole and will be staying in prison until February because she says leaving without qualifications would be pointless. She is also doing business studies.

She once had a good job in a social work department but started to take heroin at the age of 31, and her life descended into chaos. Without realistic prospects of work, she knows that could happen again.

"Before I came here, my life was non-existent - just running about for drugs," says Debbie, who is from Edinburgh. "I would've gone back to square one. Who's going to employ an ex-addict with a criminal record?"

Sarah - not her real name - is 34 and from Perth. She is also making the most of the hairdressing and beauty salon at Cornton Vale. When Sarah is released soon, she plans to continue her studies at Dundee College.

"This is really going to help me get a job," she says. "I didn't imagine prison would have something like this. It's got all the modern stuff. I would say it's just as good as going to college outside."

The salon looks like anything you might find on the high street of a Scottish town.

Ian Gunn, governor of Cornton Vale, says it is important that any facilities and studies provided by the prison have credibility because prisoners are hindered when looking for jobs by the stigma of their criminal past. Assessment is as rigorous as on a college course.

Mr Gunn says problems can also arise when prisoners are given work placements outside the prison. Newspapers can get wind of it and write alarmist stories, which cause employers to pull out.

There is a more enlightened attitude from a group of 16 elderly ladies who live locally and have been coming in for many years to get their hair done by the prison's aspiring hairdressers.

"Prisoners are quite honoured when they get to do someone who isn't a prisoner," says Liz McGrorty, a prison officer and health and beauty instructor.

Ron O'Donnell, an artist who runs classes at Shotts Prison in Lanarkshire, with help from Motherwell College, says inmates are not allowed to waste time: they have to show an interest in creating art.

For some, that may mean cartoonish doodles, but the scheme has raised prisoners' expectations of themselves and some outstanding talents have been uncovered. Mr O'Donnell recalls one who said: "I started painting the Simpsons and ending up painting Picasso."

The prisoners' self-esteem and confidence have also been boosted by holding an exhibition and selling their art. Despite initial doubts about their work's quality, they raised amp;#163;500 for a hospice and attracted guests from the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

As with the hairdressers and beauty therapists at Cornton Vale, the link to the outside world provides Shotts' maximum security prisoners with a greater sense of achievement.

"The important thing is that we relate to them as human beings, knowing that they are going to be part of the community again," says Mike Ewart, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service.

Other schemes making a difference

Barlinnie Prison

Home from Home led to a book of writing by prisoners who had been working on literacy, which could, in turn, be used to help other prisoners improve their literacy. More than 50 learners took part, contributing stories, poems and illustrations on the theme of home.

Edinburgh Prison

College Culture involved a move away from traditional production workshops to inmates learning new skills and earning awards.

Greenock Prison

Fit Together saw adults with learning disabilities from the local community visiting the prison for weekly gym sessions organised by prisoners.

Perth Prison and Young Offenders' Institution

Training Kitchen sought to increase the employability of prisoners with an interest in cooking and catering. It also covered numeracy, ICT and working with others.

Polmont Young Offenders' Institution

Independent Living Unit was a four-week programme for young offenders who were within 12 weeks of release. They spent three-and-a-half days each week living in a purpose-built facility where they had to work on skills to cope with the outside world, including finance, cooking, cleaning and relationships in the community.

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