SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — A master barber earned his credits and passed the exam, all while in custody at the Shelby County Correctional Center.

Ather Scott is the first inmate in Shelby County to obtain a master barber license through a Tennessee College of Applied Technology program.

It’s part of a program aimed at helping offenders prepare to re-enter society and try to keep them from going down the wrong path again.

“I put in the work. I cut some hair and learned a new skill. Just having this license makes me a total different person. I feel better,” Scott said.

He and other inmates are clocking hours that go toward obtaining their barber license.

Scott applied for the program back in 2020, but the pandemic happened, and the program was shut down. When it got back up in 2021, Scott got a chance to re-apply.

That decision landed Scott in a booth in a barber shop inside the Shelby County Correctional Center, where inmates cut other inmates’ hair. It’s also a classroom. Scott was among the 10 people holding the clippers the day WREG Investigators were there.

Scott entered the program in May 2021. His assignment was to complete 1,500 hours of training and memorize a hefty text book.

“It’s 800-900 pages,” he said. “I have never been to college, so I was like, this is going to be something new starting this book. I had to go back and get my dictionary out and everything to learn certain words and how to pronounce them.”

Scott then went on to take the state’s two-part, master barber exam while still incarcerated. He passed.

“I was relieved. I said all this hard work finally paid off,” he said.

He is the first, but he won’t be the last, corrections officials say.

“We just know he is just the first of many,” said DeAndre Brown, director of reentry under the Shelby County Division of Corrections. We spoke to him outside the barber shop, just feet away from his old cell.

“Had I had opportunities like this while I was incarcerated, my life may have been different,” he said.

When he was incarcerated here years ago, Brown said there weren’t many opportunities, programming, or services making it difficult when he got out.

“I was left to figure it out when I got home. I thank God for a strong support system when I got home,” he said. “If we don’t focus on this population, who will?”

The Shelby County Division of Corrections releases thousands of inmates. For many, successful outcomes can be difficult to impossible.

They’ve burned bridges. They may not have a strong support system. They’re homeless, unemployed. Many have a history of mental illness or substance abuse. All are risk factors for recidivism.

In Shelby County, about a third of those released return to prison within three years. Studies show both locally and nationally, one of the biggest problems is finding stable employment.

Studies also show when an ex-offender can earn a decent living, they’re less like to re-offend.

“Prison can be the best thing that happens to people if we do it right,” Brown said.

Brown said the goal is to help inmates find meaningful employment when they get out. They also help them with soft skills, mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as guidance on reconnecting with their families.

They also offer other programs including a natural hair school, janitorial training and forklift operator training. They hope to continue to tap into federal funding to expand.

Scott said he feels a lot better now than when he got there in 2018.

That night in August, he decided to drink and get behind a wheel. He crashed into a SUV on the interstate. A child was rushed to the hospital, where she later died.

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. It continues to haunt him.

“Even though I didn’t want it to happen, I couldn’t control the situation. I just had to accept what I had done,” Scott said. “I took different alcohol classes to better myself, and I’m going to continue that with the help of re-entry when I get out.”

He said a series of decisions landed him in the second booth on the left. Now, he said he’s focusing on change to get the results.

“That’s why I concentrated on doing this. It’s like, it’s a push for me,” he said. “I said it must be God’s will to do this.”