Financial literacy may be one of the most important skills that prisoners across the country aren’t learning.
27% of inmates in 2014 in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock survey reported having never opened a checking account, compared to 10% of non-inmates.
56% of inmates reported never having had a credit card, compared to nearly 28% of non-incarcerated males.
Although the problem is not limited to inmates alone – 78% of financial advisers in a survey by InvestmentNews strongly agree financial literacy is a concern in the U.S. – when compounded with the difficulties of re-entry, lack of financial literacy can impact a former inmate’s success in society.
Skills such as budgeting and managing a credit card can make a huge difference for those looking for a fresh start.
“Financial literacy can be an important component of an offender’s successful re-entry into society,” says Kent Hanson, Chief U.S. Probation Officer.
Educational programs like financial literacy classes lower recidivism rates; inmates who receive them have a 43% lower chance of going back to prison. Aside from the profound direct impact on these inmates’ lives, correctional education saves $870,000 to $970,000 per inmate in reincarceration costs to the state.
But despite the benefits, prisons across the nation lack comprehensive and effective financial literacy programs. As a result, many returning citizens lack the knowledge to make the right financial decisions to support themselves and their loved ones.
“Most of us [are] in here because of money,” noted one inmate from a study done by Angela Wiley at the University of Illinois.
A recent study found that 58% of surveyed inmates reported that their financial situation causes them stress. 86% of the offenders said they would find benefit in a personal finance class.
But tackling financial literacy encompasses a subset of issues for both prisons and prisoners.
Financial literacy is essential, but comprehensive financial literacy is crucial. Implementing programs that not only teach inmates, but engage them, is vital to allowing prisoners to make better decisions and, in turn, lowering recidivism.
Even for prisons that do invest in financial literacy programs, their approach often time lacks the structure best suited for prisoners learning these skills. In the study conducted by Angela Wiley, prisoners indicated a preference for teaching methods that emphasized one-on-one and hands-on learning over lectures.
Job prospects are grim for those with a criminal record, making entrepreneurship a particularly popular topic for these classes. In the University of Illinois study, prisoners indicated the strongest interest in “investing, self-employment, budgeting, and saving.” Programs that can provide employment experience, in addition, are very popular amongst inmates.
Moreover, these programs require a proper investment that allows them to cover the range of knowledge students bring to the class.
Some students understand the stock market. Some have never opened a bank account. Some lack the foundational math skills to handle money.
“While we think financial management is basic, some people first need basic math — addition, subtraction, multiplication,” said Jody Lewen (Jodi Lewen (LinkedIn)), the executive director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Many prisons lack any financial literacy program at all. But even those that do have them should carefully consider the curriculum and scope of their programs to serve students better.
For many inmates, prison-provided financial literacy classes are not a readily-available option. But there are still resources worth considering.
Some programs are not run through prisons, but rather through nonprofit and individual efforts in collaboration with the institution.
Sometimes, it’s someone on the inside who’s willing to share their knowledge. Curtis Carroll was illiterate when he first entered prison. But as he consumed reading material and learned from his cellmate, he picked up reading and financial literacy tools that he later used to teach other inmates.
Working with prison staff and a volunteer, Carroll has hosted classes that help others pick up the same skills. In doing so, he earned the name “Wall Street.”
Wall Street’s teaching includes life skills such as investment that inmates learn and act on immediately, investing through their family members on the outside.
Web-based applications and books can also offer prisoners an avenue for self-taught financial literacy that addresses their specific learning levels, interests, and pace. KA Lite, an open-source offline software released by JPay, allows inmates access to educational videos from KhanAcademy, including personal finance.
Although such programs are best suited for those with a self-starting attitude and ability to stick with their learning program, they do offer ease of access and ability to continue even after their sentence is served.
Although prison-run financial education is far from comprehensive, there are resources available to help prisoners learn the skills they need to make the most of re-entry.
It’s in the best interest of prisons to expand on financial literacy programs that can cut down on recidivism. But thanks to the hard work of nonprofits, individuals, and technology, prisoners are better able to seek the education they need for re-entry.
Mugdha Gurram is a rising junior at Boston University studying International Relations. After graduating, she hopes to pursue a career in law. In addition to international and domestic politics, she is passionate about accessible education, including the ability of students of all backgrounds to pay for their education.