The Financial Knowledge Inmates Need to Reenter Society

Two Pennsylvania agencies are collaborating to provide them with the skills to succeed and avoid re-incarceration.
September 6, 2018
Two prisoners fist bump before heading into a classroom. (AP/Elaine Thompson)
By John Wetzel  |  Contributor
Pennsylvania secretary of corrections
By Robin L. Wiessmann  |  Contributor
Pennsylvania secretary of banking and securities

One of the many challenges facing corrections officials and policymakers across the country is how best to prepare prison inmates for successful reentry to society. The scope of this issue varies among states, but the numbers in our state of Pennsylvania are not atypical: About 90 percent of those who are incarcerated - some 20,000 people per year -- are eventually released back into their communities.

We believe that a cornerstone of the effort to reduce recidivism rests upon ensuring that, upon their release, inmates have the tools they need to succeed as self-sufficient and independent citizens: a high school or equivalent diploma, job training, and access to housing, medical care and employment. To that list, we would add achieving financial capability.

We have found that inmates too often do not have fundamental knowledge, skills or experience to face the complex financial realities of life. Upon reentry into society, too often they repeat poor financial decisions that helped put them on the path to incarceration. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did not have the expertise or resources to provide up-to-date, real-world financial training to inmates scheduled to return to their communities. The Department of Banking and Securities, however, has trained staff working with audiences that include community groups, senior citizens, members of the military and veterans, and schools, helping them learn about such topics as creating budgets, managing personal credit, and protecting themselves from identity theft and financial scams.

In 2016, Corrections staff began discussing this challenge in an interagency work group called the Pennsylvania State Agency Financial Exchange (or PA $AFE), which had been formed the previous year by more than 20 state agencies engaged in some form of financial education and consumer outreach. Previously, these agencies had not formally shared information with each other about services they were offering consumers. PA $AFE helps ensure that state agencies work in a coordinated fashion. Under the umbrella of this work group, our departments' staffs began discussing how we could use our complementary strengths to help provide reentrants with financial capability. We developed an interagency collaboration in 2017.

As we entered this collaboration, we understood the importance for Banking and Securities staff of addressing a new, non-traditional audience and tailoring content to incarcerated individuals. We brought Corrections' stakeholders to the discussion table in developing a curriculum and pedagogy, representing the spectrum of intake/entry, incarceration, transition to release, community corrections and parole. As a result, we developed a new approach for Banking and Securities staff that focused on the unique needs of inmates facing reentry.

As government agencies, we have limited resources for this kind of pilot project, so we worked to ensure that this new program was scalable and sustainable. Also, understanding that one financial-capability presentation would most likely not change a lifetime of habits, we worked to create a holistic and tiered approach. A Banking and Securities staff member provides education in a classroom or large-meeting setting, while some programs are provided through webinars.

The stories we have heard and feedback received from inmates and Corrections staff have been positive. Though the program is still in its infant stages, we are encouraged by the responses and have developed four outcome measurements to employ going forward:

• We will see if there is a difference in recidivism rates between two groups of inmates -- those who received the financial education and those who have similar characteristics but did not receive the financial education.

• We will track whether reentrants who received financial tools are more successfully employed and not on public benefits, compared to the similarly situated group that did not receive financial tools.

• We will see how many released individuals have been motivated to take action as a result of the education, such as opening an account with a bank or credit union or starting a business.

• And we'll check on satisfaction with the programming among both the inmates and staff.

We believe that there is a need for this kind of financial education within the penal system, and that this pilot program can be scaled to meet the needs of states, counties and municipalities across the country. We also believe this program is evidence that government can innovate and collaborate for the benefit of all citizens. After all, thousands of men and women are returning to their communities each year after being incarcerated, and we want to them to become independent and successful.

A more complete assessment of this program can be found online in the white paper "Successful Reentry and Financial Capability." For more information on the developing program, including data on outcomes and adjustments to the program, email