Inmates Can Now Take Cosmetology Classes Inside a Notorious Jail

(Rikers Island Prison Cosmetology)

Heather Packer, national educator at The Red Door Salon & Spa, has always wanted to make a difference. An idea for how came to her during a month-long spiritual journey to India in 2014, when she was deep into Sheryl Sandbergs's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (Deckle Edge 2013) and came across a chapter titled "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" Later that day, the question crossed her mind again, and this time, so did the answer. Shortly thereafter, her vocational program for young women in Rishikesh, India came to fruition. 

In an area where girls are traditionally married at a young age and are not free to work outside of the home, Packer brought together a group of young women eager to learn the art and trade of hairstyling. "We instilled a passion for success through mentorship and provided participants with the tools to earn a sustainable and fulfilling livelihood," Packer says. With the help of a local partner, Packer’s vocational program transformed into something larger than she ever could have hoped: The Fearless Beauty Program. Over the past three years, Packer has led a team of experienced beauty professionals to train 25 women in Rishikesh. 

Fast-forward, Fearless Beauty is bringing its mission to life in the United States. ​Committed to the idea that beauty can liberate and heal, Packer and the Fearless Beauty team launched a cosmetology vocational program at the Rose M. Singer Center at New York City’s Rikers Island Jail in January 2018. After graduating from this 24-week program, women have the opportunity to attend cosmetology school with scholarship support and pursue careers in the beauty industry. "Professional hairstylists with over 10 years of specialized experience are teaching techniques to help students gain skills for cosmetology school and careers in the industry upon their release," Packer says. "The overwhelming number of applicants for our pilot program and the exceedingly positive response from those who were surveyed post-program indicates the interest and need for vocational training in the beauty industry for this community."


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During the program, two teachers and 15 students meet for 2.5-hour sessions twice a week for six months. The sessions cover a variety of skills including roller-setting and pin-curling, braiding, natural afro texture styling, wet styling, brushing and combing followed by blow-drying, updos and haircolor. Finally, students are allowed to practice hair cutting, only after tools are approved and properly accounted for. One of Packer's students, who completed the entire six-month program and was released in June, is set to start a cosmetology program on full scholarship this month. 

As for the future of Fearless Beauty, Packer says she's happy with all it’s accomplished, though there’s always room to grow. "We will continue to bring our cosmetology program grounded in mindfulness, inclusivity and community to Rikers Island for as long as we're welcomed there," she says. "We’re open to expanding to other jails and prisons. We truly believe that beauty plants the seeds for economic resiliency by providing students with the education, confidence and connections to reach for something new post-incarceration."