Hair and beauty work helps rehabilitation back to society.
Women released from prison want to prove they are a cut above the rest by working in a hair and beauty salon in Sheffield in the hope of landing jobs and turning their lives around.
Michelle Nicholson knows all too well the difficulties ex-prisoners face on release - after spending 14 years behind bars.
The 44-year-old, who maintains her innocence, said she saw too many women returning to prison time and time again during her stretch behind bars.
With nowhere to live, no money and no family support, she said it was too easy for women to fall into old habits and return to lives of crime as a way to survive.
For others prison was the only place the women felt accepted and safe, so offending to land a cell was not uncommon.
Free since September 2012, Michelle now runs the Key Changes charity she set up to give female ex-prisoners the support to turn their back on crime and re-build their lives.
She has set up the What Women Want hair and beauty salon on Elm Lane, Shiregreen, where ex-prisoners women are offered work placements and enrolled on to training courses in the hope that they will eventually land paid work.
The idea is to provide some stability in the otherwise chaotic lives of women often struggling to adjust to life on the outside.
Michelle, who has written a book about her time behind bars and is looking for a publisher, said: “Because of the stigma women face after they have been to prison it is hard to get a second chance in society, so at Key Changes we are here to give people that chance.”
She said many women struggle to re-build their lives because they lose touch with family and friends while they are inside.
And she said many feel part of a ‘community’ when they are locked up together yet ‘isolated and alone’ when they regain their freedom and lose that circle.
“There are a lot of damaged young women in prison who have suffered domestic violence and sexual abuse, and women with mental health issues who self harm. Many feel safer inside than out and they say there is nothing for them when they are released,” added Michelle. “In prison everybody has a job so you feel like you have a purpose, you have somewhere to live, friends, food and warmth. Not everybody has that when they are released and they struggle to adapt to that.
“Key Changes is all about providing women with the same sense of community when they are released they have when they are in prison - a sense of belonging.
“We provide an environment where everybody is accepted. There is no offence that would bar you because this is an opportunity for women who really want to change their lives.
“The hair and beauty project is about helping to make women self sufficient, it’s about helping them get their dignity back because on your release you do feel worthless and a sense of shame and you do get treated by some like a second class citizen. By getting people out of their homes and reducing their isolation we are giving women a real alternative to crime.”
The project also gives second chances to women who have not been through the criminal justice system, including Clare Day, aged 35, who has been offered an admin apprenticeship after 15 years of unemployment due to child care issues.
And Katie Bierton, 28, has been offered a beauty traineeship after struggling to get on a course because of having to care for her three children.
Natalie Fathers, aged 36, from Parson Cross, has been in and out of prison for the last 20 years.
The mum-of-three is training as a beautician and hopes to start her own business.
With a lengthy criminal record for shoplifting and drug offences, Natalie, who was released from her last sentence in April, is thankful for the opportunity to change her ways.
“Some years I was in and out of prison three or four times.
“When you have a history of drug problems and a criminal record it is not easy to get a job and if you do get one and have a re-lapse or a problem and have to miss work then you lose the job. Key Changes understands the difficulties people have and don’t judge you, which is really important.
“Prison has, at times, been a life saver for me because I have had times when I felt so low I never wanted to get up because I felt I had nothing to live for but in prison there was structure and it got me through the bad times.
“Finding the Key changes project has also given me a reason to get up again and it feels great to be part of something with people who understand me.
“Now I am part of this project I haven’t felt so positive for years and I am determined not to go back to my old ways.”