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Inmates learn financial basics

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Problem: Inmates find it difficult to successfully integrate into society after being released from jail and often end up returning.

Solution: St. Lucie County, Fla. initiated a financial workshop series to help inmates reach their financial goals after they are released.

How can your county keep the same folks from turning up in your jail time after time? You might try a program underway in St. Lucie County, Fla., where inmates are being taught financial basics designed to help them create a strategy for success after they’re released.

The 16-part series, “Your Game Plan for Building Wealth,” is a Financial Life Skills Extension program focused on proactive money management and designed to raise awareness of the financial pitfalls inmates may face after their release from the St. Lucie County jail. 

“From my experience as a program specialist and working with them, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback and a lot of them don’t have an opportunity to learn about financial topics,” said Carol Alberts, an agent with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who teaches the courses.

The series began when Alberts was a program specialist for Extension, she said. “I started with eight lessons, taught once a week with the men’s group, then would transition to the women’s dorm.  The topics expanded based on comments from the inmates, stories they’d share about one financial pitfall or another that helped me recognize educational gaps to fill.” 

For example, she created the “Rights and Responsibilities of Renters” segment after hearing the women share stories about finding their landlord standing in their apartment unexpectedly, she said. “Most of them didn’t know that was not OK!  So, my program grew and so did my territory — St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties had me coming to teach regularly for three years.”  Then the financial crisis hit Florida and counties had to reduce personnel to balance the budget. Her position was eliminated in 2010. 

She rejoined the Extension service last year and immediately contacted the St. Lucie County Public Defenders office to establish her program. “I made contact with the Public Defender’s Office and again offered my services,” she said. “That gave me the opportunity to update the programs and get comfortable in front of an audience again.”

Today, Alberts goes into the jail dorm to teach the courses. She uses a large binder filled with information since electronic equipment isn’t allowed. Each workshop lasts an hour to 90 minutes, she said.

She begins her sessions with the main theme: What are the four steps to building wealth? “Every one of the 16 segments goes back somehow to one of those four steps,” she said. She gives the inmates local resources in the county where they can get help maneuvering the steps.

“...we end up with a lot of time for them to share stories, listen to each other and kind of learn from each other,” she said.

One of the most popular courses, Alberts said, is dealing with debt collectors: “What you should say, what you shouldn’t say.”

Working with the St. Lucie County Jail’s chaplain and the UF/IFAS Extension, St. Lucie County adopted the program after learning from a Florida Department of Corrections study that recidivism rates are significantly lower for inmates who complete academic, vocational and substance abuse programs.

Program objectives include improving inmate job readiness, entrepreneurship, budgeting, banking, saving, credit management, consumer awareness, communication skills and loss mitigation.  Special attention is paid to educate participants about the community resources available to them upon release, Alberts said. 

Program partners include the jail, Public Defender’s Office and the UF/IFAS Extension with the St. Lucie Community Resource Development (CRD) agent serving as the program’s facilitator. Since its inception in July 2017, participating inmates consistently report increased knowledge of how to set specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time sensitive (SMART) goals.

Some of the program steps are:

A game plan for building wealth: “We go over the four steps of building wealth,” Alberts said. “I have a big Post-it easel and I have them tell me ways to accomplish each step — it gets them thinking.”

Applying and interviewing for a job: Inmates practice responses to interview questions, learn how to present the Federal Bonding Program to an employer, identify how certain strengths and personality traits lend themselves to different types of jobs, provide encouragement to keep applying (“every no is that much closer to a yes”).

The Federal Bonding Program issues fidelity bonds, which are business insurance policies that protect employers in case of theft, forgery, larceny, or embezzlement of money or property by an employee who is covered by the bond. The bond coverage is usually $5,000 with no deductible amount of liability for the employer.

Is owning a business a good fit for you? Understanding myths and realities of business ownership, evaluating skills for entrepreneurship and learning basic business terms.

Creating a usable spending plan: Calculating income, tracking expenses, setting SMART goals and including the money for those goals in the budget, and looking at ways to save or increase income so the budget balances.

Banking basics: Learning financial terms, comparing accounts and financial institutions, understanding how overdraft protection works, practicing writing a check and deposit slip, then reconciling an account.

Ways to save: A big focus on creating an emergency fund, identifying cost-saving behaviors, locating and repairing “leaks” in spending and learning about the time value of money (why “interest” exists).

In addition, Alberts also focuses on credit reports, background screening reports, credit wisdom, dealing with debt, saving and investing strategies, buying and insuring a car, landlord tenant laws and renter’s insurance, home and personal property maintenance, estate planning and life insurance and love and money.

Other topics Alberts said might be added in the future include how to fund your higher education and what to know before you own a home.

“They’re so excited to learn these things and grateful,” she said. “They get so enthusiastic. They say ‘I can’t wait to go out and do it right this time.’”

If you’d like to find out more about the program, contact Alberts at:  


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