NEAR WEST SIDE — Starting Sunday, eight inmates at Cook County's juvenile jail will study to become barbers at a new on-site facility.
"Even though we're running a detention center, we must still provide new skills and new ways of thinking so that juveniles have a sense of direction when they return home," the jail's superintendent, Leonard Dixon, said at a news conference Wednesday.
For nearly 20 hours a week, inmates will learn to snip, shape and shave alongside a licensed barber in the hopes of earning a state license.
All eight students will receive barber kits with electric clippers, brushes and combs, according to Pat Milhizer, a spokesman with the chief judge's office. The kits will be checked in and out during each training session.
Only two pairs of scissors are allowed in the room at a time — and inmates can only use said scissors during one-on-one sessions with their instructor, Milhizer said.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 241 inmates at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave. Seventy-three applied to the barber program, which can only accommodate eight inmates at a time.
Seven boys and one girl were chosen.
"This program offers me a trade, a career, an opportunity to turn my life around," said Frankie, an 18-year-old inmate from Bridgeport who was selected to be one of the inaugural eight students. His last name and details about his case were withheld for privacy reasons.
"I learn social skills in there," he said. "You talk to everyone; you learn a lot. Cutting hair — there's a lot more to it than just getting clippers and doing something to someone's hair. ... [The program] just shows you that there's more ways to make money than just standing around on a corner."
Bobby Mattison, a longtime barber who will head the program, hopes the classes will help lower recidivism rates by giving students "a skill that no one can take from you."
To be licensed as a barber in Illinois, inmates will need to complete 1,500 hours of class time. Mattison said he's found two local barber colleges that agreed to accept transfer credits from inmates who don't finish their certification before being released.
While classes at the juvenile jail are free to participants — inmates will likely have to pay to complete their training elsewhere.
The detention center recently launched a painting program aimed at teaching inmates contractor skills, officials said. Plans are in place to teach electric work in coming months.
Inmates "will be mentored while they're here," Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said Wednesday morning as STAR (Standing Tall Against Recidivism) Barber College opened its door for the first time.
"You might wonder: How could anybody be mentored in a barber shop?" the judge continued. "Some of the first judges I ever met — who became my role models — I met in the local barber shop. My barber told them: That little guy over there says he wants to be a lawyer; he says someday he wants to be a judge like you. I didn't see myself that way. But they saw that in me."
Mattison called barber shops "the heart of the community."
As inmates received their own smocks Wednesday morning, Evans joked and laughed with the group — insisting one of them will cut his hair when their training is complete.
At least two boys said, "I got you, man," with smiles.