Crime & Courts

New barber school inside Mecklenburg County Jail will give teen inmates job options

Sheriff McFadden opens inmate barber school

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden opens and dedicates the first in-jail barber school in the state, at the Mecklenburg County Jail-North facility.
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Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden opens and dedicates the first in-jail barber school in the state, at the Mecklenburg County Jail-North facility.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden is bald.

But that didn’t stop him from climbing into a barber chair in the county’s Jail North complex Monday morning, posing with five teenage inmates who will soon learn how to handle clients with more hair than McFadden.

The five inmates, all between 16 and 18 years old, are the first class of the first barber school in a North Carolina jail, officials said Monday.

McFadden said his grandfather was a barber, and he grew up knowing that barbers are a steady and important part of the black community.

“The barbers are your friend. You’ll keep your barber before you’ll keep your doctor, and most people don’t know that,” he said. “You will trust your barber before you’ll trust some of your good friends, even your pastor.”

The idea for the school began before McFadden was elected last year, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tonya Rivens said. Jail officials visited Harnett Correctional Institution, an eastern North Carolina prison with the state’s only other barber school in a detention facility, to learn how it’s run. They petitioned the state for permission to open a smaller-than-normal school, with five chairs instead of the usual minimum of 10.

But Dorian Johnson, the sheriff’s office’s adult program director, said he hopes these five chairs are only the beginning. He wants to start a barber school for adult men and a cosmetology school for adult women, too.

The school is part of a larger push by McFadden and his staff to make sure inmates have options when they leave the jail. On March 18, the jail hosted a career fair, where representatives from 14 organizations interviewed adult inmates who would be released in the next three months.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden cuts the ribbon along with other dignitaries during the dedication of the first in-jail barber school in the state, at the Mecklenburg County Jail-North facility, on Monday, April 1, 2019. David T. Foster III

Sixteen of the 33 inmates at the fair were hired that day, Johnson said, and others were asked to get in touch when they got out of jail. Johnson said he’s already heard enthusiastic reports about one former inmate who started work in the past few weeks.

One of the new barber school students, a 17-year-old who said he isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be at the jail, told the Observer he’s thinking about how this training will set him up for the future.

“I’ll be able to have something positive for me to do on the outside, instead of getting in trouble,” he said. The jail refused to release the names of the young inmates because of their ages, Rivens said.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry L. McFadden, left, shakes hands with a Mecklenburg County Jail-North resident after opening the first in-jail barber school in the state at the facility on April 1. David T. Foster III

The school’s organizers say they already put a lot of thought into making sure the new barber students will be able to finish their training, no matter where they go in the next few years.

If they turn 19 before finishing the 13-month practical and theoretical training program, and they have time left to serve, they’ll be sent to the Harnett County prison to train at the barber school there, said Jeffery Broadie, the Mecklenburg Jail barber school director.

If they’re released from jail before completing the program, they’ll receive free tuition to transfer to another barber school and finish training, Broadie said.

He said he has connections with barbers who have criminal records themselves, and when the jail’s barber school students graduate, those older barbers are eager to give them a chance.

The jail’s barber school is named for Ausie Rivens, grandfather of spokeswoman Tonya Rivens. Ausie Rivens was a sharecropper who became the first black barber in Cornelius, Tonya Rivens said.

“I think there’s a message in that even for our young people — as a sharecropper and how he was able to turn his life into a purpose,” she said, addressing the students. “You guys can also do the same.”

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.