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Iowa prison barbering apprenticeship leads to new business
Des Moines-area man first finds his calling behind bars
Mitchell Stites didn’t want to go to the hole, but the men there needed haircuts.
“I’d cut people’s hair in the hole,” Stites said, referring to solitary confinement. “That wasn’t fun, but they talked me into it. It’s not a fun environment. It’s not like they’re all bad people. They don’t get to shower as much and it’s really loud.”
When Stites, 31, was serving time at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, he couldn’t sit down for a meal without someone from his unit or another unit bugging him to cut their hair before a visit or court appearance.
Stites got 2,200 hours of hair cutting experience as a barber in the Iowa Department of Corrections, using clippers — no scissors or straightedges allowed — to do bald fades and trims to make the men incarcerated with him at Fort Dodge look and feel good.
He was the first person to complete the department’s barbering apprenticeship and, once released from prison, opened his own shop, the Barber House in Urbandale, in June.
The barbering apprenticeship is one of about 30 offered in Iowa’s state prisons. Stites feels like it’s one of the most valuable because Iowa only has two barbering schools, the Salon Professional Academy in Cedar Falls and the soon-to-open Clippernomics Academy of Hairstyling in Des Moines. Although many students use Pell grants to pay for barbering school, tuition still can cost thousands of dollars.
“It would have been a lot harder to get it done without that apprenticeship,” Stites said of his training. “Sometimes prison can be a blessing in disguise. Things slow down. You can regroup.”
Finding a career
Stites served about seven years in prison for a robbery back in 2013, when he was 22. He robbed a Des Moines-area convenience store and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Because receiving a haircut in his early 20s brought on a panic attack, Stites cut his own hair when he first was locked up. He used a beard trimmer to keep his blond hair looking sharp, and his cellmates noticed.
“If you know how to cut hair in there, you’re bu-sy,” Stites said.
A year or so later, a barber job came open at the Fort Dodge prison. With encouragement of his friends, he applied and got the job. Stites worked as a barber for the rest of his sentence, honing his cutting skills and learning how to keep up a conversation while he works.
In 2018, the Corrections Department started the barbering apprenticeship, which requires 2,000 hours of hands-on work and about six to 12 months of book work that includes 12 written tests. All prison apprenticeships, certified with the U.S. Department of Labor, are tied to jobs needed in the system
Since Stites already had logged the hours, he just had to do the book work — which he said was easy. He was transferred to the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City in 2019 and was released from prison in March 2020.
Licensure not easy
Stites passed the state written test and got a temporary license. Then came the hard part — passing the practical exam. It’s a two-hour proctored test in which test-takers must demonstrate a range of skills, including haircuts with scissors, clippers and a straightedge razor on a live model and a simulated highlight and perm on a female mannequin head — something he definitely hadn’t practiced in prison.
“I got through that hands-on test by using YouTube,” Stites said. “I went through a lot of stress and anxiety over that. I did it, so I was literally the most proud of myself I’ve ever been.”
In May, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill requiring state licensing boards, such as the Board of Barbering, to grant licenses to people who have completed Department of Labor apprenticeships as long as they’ve also passed required exams and paid fees.
Another bill, House File 807, would have allowed barbershops to start their own apprenticeship programs. It stalled in the Iowa House, but may come back next session, said state Rep. Robert Bacon, R-Ankeny.
Business is good
When Stites opened the Barber House, he was worried about covering his shop rent, utilities and TV subscriptions so his clients can watch sports and other shows. But it turns out, if you know how to cut hair out here, you’re also bu-sy.
Clients have flocked to Stites’s shop in a strip mall off Merle Hay Road. He’s cut the hair of National Guardsmen from Camp Dodge, friends’ kids and a groom and his wedding party on a recent weekend. Business is so good that he’s looking for another barber to rent a second chair at the Barber House.
Stites tells his story to some clients, if they ask where he got his training. The apprenticeship certificate that hangs over his mirror notes it was completed in the Iowa Department of Corrections.
“It’s not like I’m hiding it, but I’m not advertising it like crazy,“ he said. ”Everyone I do tell thinks it’s awesome.“
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