According to Fortune, two-thirds of Americans cannot pass a financial literacy test.  For those in juvenile detention centers or prisons, being unable to budget, understand how debt works, and learn the importance of balancing finances, could not only impair their plans for the future, but also encourage behaviors that could return them to prison.  

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported in 2018 that out of the 18-65-year-olds incarcerated in federal prisons, many entered prisons at formidable stages of their development and subsequently missed the benefit of learning money management.  

In addition to education programs that promote literacy and help incarcerated individuals earn GEDs, education advocates are increasingly calling for the advancement of financial literacy courses in prisons.  

Why?

Simply put: financial literacy promotes self-sufficiency and reduces recidivism.

“Many young people enter the system as juveniles and have little to no understanding of how the world around them operates, financially.  When a young person’s education is stunted by a stay in prison, they are more inclined to seek extra-legal means of caring for themselves upon their release,” Darryl Markham, former Lorton prison peer counselor and founder of Finance Forward told the Informer.  “We have to include financial literacy to prisoners so that upon release, returning citizens can thrive as productive, financially aware citizens.”

Markham spent more than twenty years in prison – convicted at 18 – after having dropped out of school in the 10th grade.  While he claimed excellent grades and a clear grasp on most coursework, his arrest halted access to formal learning and ways to make money legally.

“I was wilding out as a youth, but I was never dumb.  I understood money and how to make it – supply, demand, inflation, and competition – but all in a very illegal way,” he said laughing.  “But because we were slamming down thousands of dollars in cash on a countertop to buy cars and designer clothes, I never understood banking, saving, investing, or safeguarding money in a legal way.  I did not understand credit cards and leasing apartments… these are the skills necessary for incarcerated people to learn while inside so they do not go back to bad habits.”

To combat this problem, in places like Pennsylvania, corrections opened a dialogue in 2016 with the Pennsylvania State Agency Financial Exchange (PA $AFE).  PA $AFE, a group of 20+ state agencies work together to provide financial education for consumers. Corrections began working with the organization to provide financial education as part of a re-entry strategy.

“We have found that inmates too often do not have fundamental knowledge, skills, or experience to face the complex financial realities of life. Upon re-entry into society, too often they repeat poor financial decisions that helped put them on the path to incarceration,” said John Wetzel, Pennsylvania secretary of corrections, and Robin L. Wiessmann, Pennsylvania secretary of banking and securities.

Although the program is in its early stages, both inmates and Corrections report positive feedback.

The program will be measured against four attainable outcomes: to see if those that received financial education in prison have a lower recidivism rate than those that did not, to see if past-offenders that are back in society and had financial literacy training are more successfully employed than those that did not, to see if the released offenders are more motivated to use financial tools such as a bank account and are more willing to engage in entrepreneurship; and to see how satisfied the staff and inmates are with the overall program results.

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