Every morning, Sudhilal MS, 28, gets into work, greets his first customer, and begins answering questions about the crimes he’s committed.
It’s just barbershop talk, in a sense, because he cuts hair at the men’s salon is in Kerala’s Kannur central prison.
The establishment itself looks like any upscale men’s salon -- glass doors, posters of coiffed men all over, air-conditioned interiors with a row of customers waiting their turn.
Only, instead of a receptionist, a policeman armed with an assault rifle welcomes you; another armed cop mans the door with a great deal more severity than the average doorman. And the beauticians are all convicted prisoners, like Sudhilal. (The guards have asked that we not mention their crimes, since they are serving their time.)
The salon is called Freedom Expressions, and was born out of the prison’s vocational training programme, conducted in association with NGO Rudesti (short for Rural Development and Self-Employment Training Institute).
Thirty prisoners were given a month’s training in ‘men’s parlour management’, in February. “Prisoners with the closest release dates and with a record of good behaviour were chosen,” says prison welfare officer Mukesh KV. “The idea is for the men to utilise this skill once they are out of prison.”
Once the training had ended, the prison authorities decided to turn an unused generator room just outside the prison walls into a parlour, so the men would not lose touch with their new skill. The first-of-its-kind salon was launched in April, open to the public from 9 am to 5.30 pm daily.
“We provide all kinds of grooming services including haircut, hair colour, manicure, pedicure, facials – at rates that are at least 20 rupees cheaper than any outside parlour,” says prison superintendent Ashokan Arippa. “For instance, a haircut here costs Rs 50, a shave is Rs 30.”
All the money earned goes to the prisoners. They can send 50% of their income home, keep 25% for expenses such as the jail canteen, and the rest goes into a ‘release fund’ to be handed over at the time of their release.
The public response has been better than anyone expected. “We get at least 75 customers a day,” says Arippa.
Many come for the experience of having their hair cut by a convict, and also for the low prices.
One such repeat customer is former Air Force clerk Pravin TP, 45, here on his second visit in six weeks. “I find the service impeccable,” he says. “I wasn’t at all perturbed to have my hair cut by a convict, but there was definitely a certain level of curiosity. I refrained from asking any uncomfortable questions, though, as they have already received punishment for their crime.”
Sumesh P, a 33-year-old businessman, is leaving after a ‘satisfactory’ haircut. “I will definitely recommend this place to my friends as the services are cheaper. I think other prisons should learn from this initiative,” he says.
Still waiting in the queue is 42-year-old businessman Rafi (who goes by only one name), who has travelled 7 km to try out the parlour after reading about it in a local newspaper. “I want to see the difference between a normal parlour and a one run by prisoners,” he says.
This isn’t the only unusual initiative at the Kannur prison. In 2012, the authorities started Malabar Freedom Taste, a food factory that churns out ready-to-eat rotis, chicken biryani and banana chips made by the prisoners. “In February, we also set up rearing units for ornamental fish and quails,” Arippa says.
The salon, however, has become the most prestigious job available. “Other prisoners envy us because we get to come out, work, earn and talk to people from the outside world,” says Shahul Hameed, 30, who is serving a life sentence. “I dread closing time because the prison isn’t a happy place.”
Watch: What it’s like inside the salon run by convicts