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Taking Financial Literacy Into Prison

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Listen to Chief Probation Officer Hanson explain the CARE program.

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A widely used Credit Abuse Resistance Education (CARE) program may help federal inmates in a Wisconsin correctional facility avoid the consequences of excessive debt and irresponsible credit card use upon their release.

The CARE program is a bankruptcy education program begun in 2002 by then Chief Bankruptcy Judge John C. Ninfo, II in the Northern District of New York, to teach high school students the importance of using consumer credit wisely and avoiding credit card debt. It turns out many of those lessons in financial literary can help federal offenders as they prepare to re-enter the workforce.

"Over the years, the Wisconsin Western Bankruptcy Court has given CARE programs for teens and young adults at local high schools and colleges and at money management seminars," said the bankruptcy court’s Deputy Clerk Kathleen Boucher. The program includes a presentation by Boucher or other program coordinator from the bankruptcy court, handouts, and access to online information to help participants improve their financial IQ. Chief U.S. Probation Officer Kent D. Hanson in the Western District of Wisconsin attended a CARE presentation and saw a future for the program as part of the federal inmates’ prerelease program.

"It is such a practical application of financial responsibility. It teaches participants about their finances, along with the pitfalls, the pluses and minuses, to managing their money once they’re released," said Hanson.

The Federal Correctional Institution and Camp at Oxford (FCI Oxford), Wisconsin, is located 60 miles north of the Madison offices of the Bankruptcy Court and Probation and Pretrial Services Office and is a medium security institution for male offenders with an adjacent satellite prison camp that houses minimum security male offenders. Computer-based financial training is available to inmates. However, few inmates were taking advantage of it.

According to Hanson, Warden Robert Werlinger has been a strong proponent of inmates’ exposure to training from professionals outside the prison setting. His receptiveness to outside programs opened the way for Hanson and Boucher, along with Western Wisconsin Assistant Deputy Chief Probation Officer Paul Reed to coordinate with the Residential Reentry Coordinator/Educational Resource Officer at FCI Oxford, Jacqueline Pitt, on an in-house CARE presentation.

"At a preliminary meeting, presentation goals were discussed," said Boucher, "including the time needed, and costs. We adjusted a rough draft of the CARE presentation to meet the needs of FCI Oxford, and reviewed handouts in English and Spanish that I’d prepared."

More than 28 inmates signed up to attend the seminar held in late November 2012. An opportunity for questions and answers followed the presentation. "It was apparent from the discussion that there were various levels of financial literacy among the participants," Boucher said. At the end of the day, most of the inmates expressed an interest in furthering their financial knowledge through the computer-based training modules. According to Boucher, once the students complete the online portion of the FDIC "Money Smart" Program, they will be awarded a certificate of completion.

"One of the advantages of the Western District of Wisconsin’s program was its credibility," Hanson said. "Here was someone from the outside, from the court system, who was saying, ‘We care. We want to teach you about financial responsibility by reaching out to you and coming before you in person.’"

Hanson hopes to continue to offer the CARE presentation at the Wisconsin institution, and also at halfway houses for individuals under supervised release, including federal and state offenders.

"No matter how much money you make, whether it’s minimum wage or a top salary, you always have to manage it and make good decisions with it. CARE and other financial programs offered by the Bureau of Prisons let offenders hit the streets with some knowledge," said Hanson. "Financial literacy can be an important component of an offender’s successful re-entry into society."

Additional information is available online about the CARE program and CARE program presentations by the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.