UF Course Teaches Prisoners How To Handle Money When They Get Out

Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

Joan Elmore jpe@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu, (850) 482-9620

MARIANNA — When some of the men at the Federal Correctional Institution in Marianna first went behind bars, there were no debit cards or ATM cards, and banking choices were limited.

So when the time comes for them and others to return to society and take charge of their own lives again, one of the biggest challenges they will face is managing their own finances for the first time in years.

Prison officials said they needed a course to help make sure prisoners would be successful in building new lives and fitting in with society after they are released. They turned to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Jackson County Extension Agent Joan Elmore. Elmore developed a course that could be taught to prisoners within two years of release with a curriculum based on what the prison’s education department said was necessary.

“This class would reduce one of the stressors that inmates go through when they are released,” said Marianna Associate Warden for Programs Bill Willingham.

Elmore said the goal of the class is just to teach the inmates basic skills, although she said some of them seem to have loftier expectations.

“One of the questions they ask me is about investments,” Elmore said. “I told them you can’t talk about investments until you have the basics under control.

“A lot these folks do not have a savings plan, and you have to have that in order to move further up,” she said. “I tell them at the very beginning that this is a basic money management class. Since I don’t know them, I will assume that they know nothing, so we will start from the bottom and build up from there.”

Elmore said she tries to change the way the inmates think about what is necessary in life and what isn’t. “I want them to learn that it’s better to manage what you have than to want more,” Elmore said. “Yes, everybody would like more money and they think, ‘Well, if I just had $100 more a week I could make ends meet.’

“In reality, if you manage what you have, there are things anybody can do to plug the holes and get ahold of your spending,” she said. “By keeping a record, you’ll be able to plug the leaks: smoking, eating out, fast foods. You’re going to find … some extra money.”

Part of the problem, Elmore said, is that the inmates have most of their needs taken care of while they are in prison. She tries to get them to realize what life on the outside is going to be like.

Stress — including problems with family, the inability of the newly released inmate to find a job, ostracism by society and the need for inmates to manage their own money — often can land the individual back in jail. Willingham said statistics show that some inmates will be back in jail in three to four years.

“When they get out, it all comes down on their shoulders,” Elmore said. “They could get right back into the same overpowering situation. With this class, they will see if they just take one step at a time, to get a handle on things so that they don’t come back into the prison system so they will be better off.”

Willingham praised the UF course, describing it as good as anything the federal Bureau of Prisons had developed on its own.

“I would recommend it for any prison that has inmates within a couple of years of release,” he said. “The feedback we have gotten from Joan’s program has been across-the-board outstanding. We have a waiting list for inmates to enter her program. It is a very popular, very productive program.”

Willingham said about 15 percent of Marianna’s 1,000 inmates have been through the program. Most of the inmates were convicted of drug crimes with the rest responsible for a variety of offenses, including robbery and auto theft.

Of the inmates who sign up for the class, Elmore said, many did not finish high school. Inmate Curtis Stevens said he knows what he is learning in Elmore’s class will help him when he gets out in just over two years.

“One of the problems I’ve always had is making ends meet and keeping things going and balanced at home,” Stevens said. “I believe this will give me the skills that I need to do that.”