Will the men of Kannur pay to be groomed by convicts – perhaps a sharp haircut, a pedicure followed by a close shave?

Authorities at the Central Prison in Kannur in Kerala seem to think so. Next month, about 30 convicts – serving time for offences like burglaries and murder – will take charge at a salon exclusively for men outside the jail complex. The convicts have completed a three-month course in cutting and styling hair, and other grooming services. They were presented with their training certificates at the Kannur jail on March 25.

The success of the jail’s food products – sold under the brand name Freedom Food – seems to have convinced prison authorities to expand into male grooming services. “The prison’s food division recorded a turnover of Rs 6 crore last year,” said jail welfare officer KV Mukesh.

But what does the food business have to do with male grooming?

Mukesh explained that the success of Freedom Food had changed the attitude of people towards the jail and prisoners in general. “People from all walks of life throng the jail for food products made here,” said Mukesh. “They are cheap and healthy as compared to those available in the open market.” He added that prisons were no longer seen as centres of oppression and it was this change in attitude that has convinced him that the male salon initiative will work.

The salon is targeted at youth from poorer sections of society who will be able to choose from an array of hair treatments, styling, and skin care procedures. Jail authorities said that the pricing at the salon, as in the case of Freedom Food products, will be affordable – much lower than the prices of competitors.

Trust issues

Kerala is not the first state to tap prisoners to run successful businesses. Delhi’s Tihar Jail has sold a variety of products made by its inmates – bakery items, textiles, apparel, furniture, and recycled handmade paper products – under the brand TJ’s for years. TJ’s even has its own website.

But Kannur jail is possibly the only jail in India to open a parlour to the public. Tihar Jail has a parlour inside the jail complex, but it is open only to prison inmates.

The prospect of convicts brandishing sharp-edged razors close to some throats may sound unnerving, but jail authorities aren’t overly concerned about the security of the salon’s potential clients. “The people trained for the job are trusted convicts who have been released on parole several times,” said H Gopakumar, Inspector General Prisons.

There will, of course, be guards to ensure the convicts don’t decide to hotfoot it to freedom while out on the job. Salon workers will also be screened before going to work, and upon their return, to ensure that they do not carry anything illegal in and out of jail.

As in the case of the food business, convicts will be paid for their labour. While some convicts usually send this steady income back to their families, others save up so that they can start businesses with the corpus when they are released. Prisoners engaged in food processing, for instance, earn approximately Rs 3,500 every month.

While prisoners are able to use the skills they pick up in jail when they are released, the money they send home from jail helps their families. “There have been several cases of dependents ending up in jail after the breadwinner in a family was imprisoned,” said Mukesh. “Such instances have come down after jails started providing prisoners with gainful employment.”