I usually go to my local barber to get my haircut. But today, I found myself in a hairdressing salon having my hair cut by a lovely young woman called Milly. All the other customers are women, mostly young, and I sense a little amusement at this middle-aged man in a suit in their midst. 

The hairdressers are clearly very skilled and professional, and there’s a friendly atmosphere. Very different to the blokey vibe in my barbers. 

An older woman, who I assume is a senior stylist, is discreetly keeping an eye on the progress of my haircut and occasionally nods her approval. I ask Milly how long she has worked there. She tells me about a year and that she had never cut hair until a year ago. She has worked hard on her skills and explains that she is now ‘Level 3’. I tell her that’s amazing - but I think she can tell I have no idea what it means. From April, in just over four months, Milly hopes to move on from the salon, set herself up in business as a self-employed hairdresser and beautician, and move back to her hometown in the midlands so she can be nearer her mum: "Working in here - the time has flown by. I honestly never knew I could be good at something. I came out of school with nothing. I love being a hairdresser." It’s evident she means it.

"Working in here - the time has flown by. I honestly never knew I could be good at something. I came out of school with nothing. I love being a hairdresser."

I notice there seems to be a special hum in the room. Women having their hair cut and styled seem hugely grateful. The hairdressers speak to them with genuine kindness. It’s intimate, and the only word I can think of to describe it is therapeutic—a far cry from the football banter in my local barbers.

As you may have already guessed, the salon is in a prison, and Milly, the other hairdressers, and other customers are all prisoners. I’m in HMP Drake Hall prison in Staffordshire. 

The Drake Hall hairdressing salon is an outstanding example of when prisons get things right. Milly (that’s not her real name) is a young woman who made some poor life choices. She came to prison with absolutely no idea that she might have any skills and was practically unemployable - and this was made worse, of course, by a criminal record. But thanks to this scheme, and her own hard work, she will leave with a sense of pride in the first qualifications she has ever secured: a Level 3, no less. She will have a trade that she enjoys, makes her part of a team, and that can keep her employed for life. Milly’s risk of re-offending has fallen dramatically. She has hope and the chance of living a good life.

I chatted with another customer—a slightly older woman. Let’s call her Linda. Linda told me about the support she was getting from one of our Pact Family workers. Linda’s son is 11 and will be moving to secondary school next year. She misses him deeply, and it is clearly painful to talk about him, but she wants to do whatever she can to be a good mum. "Pact is helping me with that and have helped me write to his school to explain where I am but also to explain that I want to encourage him to do well at school and ..well…be in his life," she tells me.

"Pact is helping me with that and have helped me write to his school to explain where I am but also to explain that I want to encourage him to do well at school and ..well…be in his life,"

Milly is nearly finished. She is sorting out my sideburns. I ask her if she has children. “No, she says, I don’t know if I could even cope in here if I were separated from my children. But I’ve got my mum, and she visits me every week. She worries about me. I’m going to live with her when I get out, and with the hairdressing, I’ll hopefully be able to get my own place eventually.” I look at her in the mirror and realise how very young she looks.

For both Milly and Linda, the love and support of their families has enabled them to cope with the shock of going to prison and given them a sense of hope and purpose throughout their sentence. People in prison whose families regularly visit are nearly 40% less likely to re-offend than those who become cut off and isolated. 

Milly has finished. She brushes the hair off my neck, passes me the mirror, and asks me if I’m happy. It’s a fine haircut. 

Andy Keen-Downs, Pact CEO