Christie Luther looks in the faces of the women she works with at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, and sees a lot of herself in there.
One might not know to look at her, but Luther was once in their shoes in a very real sense.
The former inmate was incarcerated from 2008 to 2012 at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.
“Society kind of failed me,” Luther says. “Family failed me. Relationships failed me. We’re a sisterhood. They’ve all been through the same thing.”
While at EWCC, the trained beautician and cosmetology instructor worked in the beauty shop.
“Other inmates would come in and say I need a job,” Luther says. “I’d say, ‘Well, show me a haircut.’ And it’d be terrible.’
She kept hearing the same story.
She realized many of them lacked the skills to earn a living after they discharged, as all of them would.
But they were also hurting from lifetimes of abuse, addiction and trauma. Nearly all were mothers, and nearly all had lost custody of their children.
“You can be better or bitter,” Luther says. “Better is always my choice.”
When she completed her sentence, she immediately began working to develop a beauty college inside a prison.
She became a DOC volunteer and began working with the agency to develop RISE, nonprofit run by Oklahoma-licensed cosmetology master instructors teaching incarcerated women cosmetology skills.
She worked with the State Board of Cosmetology to get permission to grant certificates to those completing the program at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, and RISE was born in 2017. Now she has others working with her inside the prison, including fellow instructor Emily Gargone and assistant Sierra Blundell, as well as connections to Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based substance treatment group.
Only inmates who are misconduct-free and sober are eligible. It helps 20 women at a time train in cosmetology and take the Oklahoma Board of Cosmetology test. They receive their state license to practice when they discharge.
Another 20 women began the program last spring. The RISE Program at MBCC has grown into much more than that.
“There’s so much more to it. They have to be confident in who they are. They have to understand that they don’t need anyone’s permission to be their children’s mother, and that they don’t have to perform for family members.”
The curriculum teaches them physiology, histology, anatomy and chemistry – as well as a lot about recovery, and not letting their pasts define who they are.
Luther’s nonprofit also helps women get jobs after discharge, reunify with their families, and find secure housing, clothing, and other needed resources to help them with re-entry.
“It’s just about wanting to see them excel as women,” Luther says.