25 years as a jailhouse barber

Arlene Veltkamp first went to jail 25 years ago, and she’s been in and out ever since, typically finding herself back in the hoosegow about once a month.

No, Veltkamp’s not a repeat offender. She’s a hairdresser.

For longer than most people can remember, Veltkamp has cut inmates’ hair at the Gallatin County jail, giving the accused a little bit of polish before they have to stand before judges and juries.

“It’s a person’s thought or urge to look nice,” she said. “I like to look nice when I go somewhere, and I think they probably want to look nice to go to court. It’s one less thing against them.”

Over the years, Veltkamp has cut hair in almost every room inside the jail, from tiny interview rooms to the relatively spacious jail library. In all that time, she said there has been no drama, no danger, only routine. Sit them down, cut their hair and collect her pay: $6 per trim.

Of course, her clients are escorted to her chair in jumpsuits and shackles. They can’t raise their arms high enough to demonstrate what they want, so most of them simply ask for “a shorter version of what they’ve got,” Veltkamp said.

“Sometimes, you can’t believe they did something because, once they’re sober and in their right minds, they’re really OK guys,” she said.

Not all the inmates are peaches, though. The talkative and friendly ones are balanced by the terse and ornery ones. Veltkamp said many of the murderers she’s met have been “very arrogant.”

“Of course, they’re all innocent back there,” Veltkamp said. “I just tell them I don’t want repeat customers.”

Born in Columbus, Mont., Veltkamp said she always wanted to be a hairdresser but didn’t act on that desire until later in life, after her children went to college. Facing an empty nest, she decided to finally do what she had been talking about for years and enroll in beauty school.

“When I got out of beauty school, I thought I’d do this for about five years to satisfy my urges for doing hair,” she said. “Pretty soon it had been 25 years.”

A quarter-century ago, when she learned that the jail was looking for someone to cut hair on the inside, Veltkamp signed on. People have often been amazed by the fact that she goes behind bars every month. Veltkamp shrugs off their amazement and explains that it’s just another job.

When she’s not at the jail, Veltkamp styles hair at the Essence Salon in Bozeman, though she’s nearing retirement. She will leave big shoes to fill, said Lt. Brian Gootkin, Gallatin County jail administrator.

“We haven’t even thought of replacing Arlene because she’s always been here,” Gootkin said. “It’s one of those things that’s out of sight out of mind.”

But for at least the next few years, Veltkamp will continue to take her scissors, clippers and combs back to the jail when she’s needed.

“I enjoy cutting hair,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where I cut hair.”

Do you or does someone you know do something, make something or enjoy something that’s a little weird or off the beaten path? Send story ideas to Michael Becker at [email protected] or 582-2657.