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He spent 23 years in prison. An inmate-led barber school gave him a new path on the outside.

Jan. 28—A recent Thursday afternoon found Jeremy Palmer cutting hair at the Anchorage barber shop AK Fadez, a fact both mundane and miraculous. Months ago, Palmer walked out of prison after more than 23 years — his entire adult life.

With soul music on the speakers and ESPN on the TV, Palmer shaped a client's fade haircut in quiet concentration. He dusted stray clippings from the man's shoulders and applied some gel. The client rose from the barber chair, trimmed and fresh, and handed Palmer some folded bills.

"Thanks, man," Palmer said.

Palmer, 42, is a graduate of an Alaska Department of Corrections program in which inmates teach one another to become barbers, allowing them to earn the Alaska state licensure required to work. He learned how to barber inside Wildwood Correctional Center, a medium-security prison tucked into the woods north of Kenai. His instructor was Frank Adams, another inmate.

The barbering program was founded in 2014 by Sergio Colgan, a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center. Since then, more than 40 men have earned Alaska barber licensure through the inmate-led program.

For many, barbering becomes the next chapter after incarceration.

In December, Adams, the instructor, wore a neatly trimmed silver beard and his yellow prison-issued jumpsuit while he shaved a man's head in the Wildwood barber shop. He won't be getting out anytime soon — he's serving a 99-year sentence for the 2007 killing of his girlfriend in Sutton. But like 98% of all people incarcerated in Alaska, his students eventually will be released.

Barbering, he said, offers the promise of not just a job but a career.

"They can leave here and make a living," Adams said in an interview at Wildwood. "So they don't sell drugs or do anything illegal to bring them back inside here."

Many people released from prison do end up going back: Between 57% and 62% of people returned to prison for a new arrest, conviction or another reason within three years, according to Alaska Criminal Justice Commission's 2023 report. Alaska has long had some of the highest recidivism rates in the country, though rates have fallen since a peak of 67% in 2013.

But research nationally has shown that people who find quality employment after prison are about half as likely to return to prison as those who do not. One 2011 study even found employment to be the "single most important" factor in decreasing recidivism.

Prison-based barber schools exists across the country, from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to California. Officials say they make sense: Inmates need haircuts, and people set for release also need skills to work at attainable jobs.

The barber certification at Wildwood is part of a broader effort by the Department of Corrections to equip people serving prison time with vocational skills that will lead to employment after release, said Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner Jen Winkelman. At Wildwood alone, inmates can work toward a commercial driver's license or a welding certification. The programs are competitive to get into and require good behavior.

For Palmer, soft-spoken in pressed khakis and an AK Fadez baseball cap, barbering represents more than a job.

"It's — what do you call it? — I guess it's my safe space," he said.

Basement barber shop

Jeremy Palmer went to prison when he was still a teenager.

Palmer was convicted for his role in the murder of his former manager at an Anchorage restaurant in 2000.

He was 18. He'd dropped out of West Anchorage High School with a juvenile criminal record and had been working at a Wendy's in Midtown.

He and a former co-worker both quit, and then returned a few weeks later with guns to rob the place, according to news accounts at the time. Prosecutors said Palmer's co-worker Fillo Muasau shot the manager, a 31-year-old woman, twice in the head after she opened a safe.

Muasau was convicted of first-degree murder. Palmer was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery and tampering with evidence.

At Palmer's sentencing, the judge called him a "very active participant" in the crime, though he hadn't pulled the trigger.

Talking about the time now, Palmer described himself as "naive, immature and lost."

"I hurt a lot of people and was unaware of the consequences," he said.

Palmer spent the first years of his incarceration in a prison gang, he said, bouncing from institution to institution with stops in Juneau, Seward and Colorado.

Years in, he says, he realized the gang was a dead end. He says he opted for another path inmates refer to as "programming," or enrolling in some of DOC's voluntary programs and certifications. He figured it was his best chance to make good use of his time — which he had a lot of. He held jobs in the kitchen and racked up certifications and program certificates.

It wasn't until he was at Wildwood, nearing his first opportunity for possible parole, that he found his real calling.

Wildwood is lower security than other institutions such as Spring Creek Correctional in Seward but still houses many men convicted of serious crimes and serving decades-long or life sentences. But the inmates there have generally earned some latitude, and the former military barracks feels more like a dorm than a penitentiary in some areas. Palmer applied for a coveted spot in the barbering school during COVID-19. Adams, the warden and other inmates sat on the interview panel. Someone asked where he saw himself in five years.

Standing in line at the store, he said. It sounded like a joke, he said. But it wasn't.

"I wanted the satisfaction of being able to stand in line — getting to stand in line at the store — knowing that I am working to make the money that I chose to spend," he said. "To be able to walk into a Walmart, buy what you want, is something new."

When he got into the program, "I was ecstatic," he said.

The barber shop

The barber shop in the basement of Wildwood is a clean and bustling space with all the trappings of a salon in the free world: chairs, mirrors, stations with styling tools. Mannequin heads used for practice. There are a few differences: Adams, the instructor, shows off a locked, wall-mounted case that holds what might usually be considered contraband "sharps" in prison — specialized scissors, even razors for shaves.

The men who enroll in the program must be free of disciplinary problems for at least a year and have to pass other hurdles even to be considered. They earn trust in the program, which is usually a last stop for men who will soon be released, Adams said.

One of the biggest benefits is spending time in a rare prison space that feels normalized, said Kevin Dalton, an inmate and barber school student. Guys come in for haircuts and talk about sports, he said.

"When you're in the barbershop, you're not in prison," he said. "It's like you're on the street. It's this atmosphere."

For Palmer, barber school started at 7:30 each morning, first with a few haircuts, then book work, then more haircuts in the afternoon.

There were surreal moments: Palmer's partner for practicing straight razor shades, where a blade is held to the throat of the person being shaved, was Evan Ramsey — who killed two people and wounded two others at his Bethel High School in 1997, at a time when U.S. school shootings were nearly unheard of.

"He's trusting me with his life," Palmer said.

When Palmer went up for discretionary parole, barber school had become the focus of his life and the center of his post-prison plan.

"Every metaphor, every situation involved was about barbering," he said.

The Alaska Board of Parole said yes — an increasingly rare circumstance in Alaska. In 2022, the most recent year of data available, only about 25% of applicants were granted discretionary parole.

Outside again

In April, Palmer stepped out of Wildwood with a barber certification, a box of his belongings and a ride to Anchorage from family.

He'd gone to prison when he was 18. He was now 41.

He re-entered a world that had changed drastically since the turn of the millennium. Everyone held a smartphone. People chronicled their every move on social media. The landmarks of his youth in West Anchorage of the 1990s had changed. He still called the gas station MAPCO, but now it had a different name.

The first few days out, he could hardly sleep. Still, he felt clear about what being out meant for him.

"My life is serving others now and repairing the damage my past caused," he said.

Part of that meant getting a job.

Alexander Von Dincklage started AK Fadez in 2014 after years of cutting the hair of friends and family. Now he has two locations with more than a dozen barbers specializing in detailed fade haircuts.

Over the years, Von Dincklage has given several men coming out of the prison barbering program a chance to rent a chair at one of his shops.

"They've done their time," he said. "I look at everybody I bring in equally: Give them a chance."

They have to prove themselves by being reliable and trustworthy, Von Dincklage said. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. He's seen men start making money and quickly go back to old ways, returning to prison.

Some prison barber school graduates are still in what Von Dincklage calls "jail mode" when they start work. They're stiff and jittery, focused on the survival instincts honed in prison. Haircut by haircut, he sees them relax.

"They communicate with people, with customers, and they're slowly opening back up with their personality," he said.

The best-case scenario, he said, is someone who comes back to the community, serves others and earns money to support themselves.

Von Dincklage offered Palmer a chair rental position. Palmer's family helped him buy the electric razors and shears he needed to start. He loves cutting hair: Every day he's there, people tell him about their lives.

"My job is to listen," he said.

In recent months, he's upgraded his tools. He even covered his work station in nostalgic stickers he used to buy as a teenager in the 1990s — the last years he was free.

Now, his life is settling into a routine: days in the barber shop, evenings with his girlfriend.

Palmer says he's still institutionalized. He expects doors to lock and every room to hold surveillance cameras. Half his lifetime passed in prisons, and he's still adjusting to the fresh new wonders of being free in the world.

But when he's at work, it falls away, he said. He focuses on the haircut in front of him. The rest can wait.