What I learned in prison

Before you start worrying about the validity of my ‘Working with Children’ card… I’m part of the ‘Women in Leadership Driving Change’ group that visits women in prison. We deliver training on re-entering the workforce. The program is called ‘Tall Poppies’. It’s a name the residents (the preferred term for prisoners) selected. We cover all sorts: social media, interview prep, what to wear, mindset and, of course, personal finance. Which is where I come in.

A taste of personal finance education in prisons

 
My contribution is to deliver a five-minute talk for the 30 women in the room. Then I run a 20-minute detailed session and Q&A with a smaller group of 8-12 women who want to learn more.
 
I’ve done this in two prisons and once at a public session, and on all three occasions my message has been the same:
  1. You must pay yourself first. Saving is the golden rule in finance, and it’s about the habit, not the amount. Start small then build up, but always, always, ALWAYS save something.
  2. It’s never too late to start. My mum started investing at 49 years old and is now a self-funded retiree. This always gives women under 50 – which most residents seem to be – hope. There’s no need to panic because you don’t have much money or investing knowledge yet. Time is on your side. Think baby steps.
  3. You can teach your kids about money. I learned as much from my dad, who went bankrupt, as my mum. You don’t have to get it right, and you don’t have to pretend. You only need to stay one lesson ahead. I tell them they now are one lesson ahead, because they now understand paying yourself first.
 I am reassured that feedback from the events is always positive. I leave feeling that I have given the attendees hope that they may one day become financially independent.
 
But it’s not the only feeling I leave with.
 

The first (easy) prison visit

 
In mid 2016 we visited Boronia Pre-Release Centre for Women. As one past resident said: you’d want to take your family there for Sunday lunch. It’s gorgeous. The conference/dining room overlooks the immaculate gardens. The residents live in houses rather than cells and can have their children with them. They are close to release. Most of them have gained qualifications, from Year 12 certificates through to Masters degrees. Their eyes are full of hope… and at least a bit of trepidation at what they might find when they are ‘outside’.
 
I could feel the connection with these women. They laughed, they were attentive, and they asked excellent questions. I had a strong sense that these women would be OK. They now knew that money didn’t need to be overwhelming, that they could take small steps and they’d get there. They also wanted to teach their kids – several asked me for more of the posters I’d brought for them to gift their kids.
 
I left that session feeling awesome and inspired. I jumped at the chance to speak at the next session.
 

The second (hard) prison visit

 
In early 2017 we visited Bandyup Women’s Prison, a maximum security facility. If Boronia is cheese, Bandyup is chalk. The speaker group knew about this. We had low expectations, but the reality is still a shock if you haven’t been to a functioning prison before. The presence of razor wire overwhelms even the beautiful rammed earth front building. The group of 30 women we were teaching looked nervous. Most of them looked at least a decade younger than me.
 
I delivered a similar talk. I did the same workshop with 12 residents. I answered questions like ‘How do I roll my superannuation over?’ and ‘Is it a good idea to invest in penny stocks?’ These women were every bit as interested and engaged as the Boronia group. A young lady volunteered to speak the vote of thanks. Her words of gratitude covered how we had inspired her and made her feel like she could make something of herself. Many of the speakers were in tears by then.
 
As we left the facility, several of us stole glances over our shoulders, expressing various versions of ‘Thank goodness we’re out of there.’
 
I left feeling depressed, and it took me a good week to emerge from melancholy.
 

Facing my preconceptions

 
So what was different?
Both groups of women were residents, and they were engaged and interested. They were polite. They displayed gratitude. If anything, the latter group was more enthusiastic about the knowledge they were gaining. They were more willing to chat and say thank you.
 
At first, I put my sombre mood down to a realization I had while watching one of the pregnant residents smoking. She was talking about how her kids were born small – this baby was 37 weeks and under two kilograms. The way she said it, it sounded intentional or something to be proud of. ‘My child is small, so birth will be easier.’ I wanted to scream: ‘Of course it’s small – your smoking is affecting its growth!’
 
I drew a connection between her unborn child and the dream I had of fostering children in the future. I knew that in theory fostering meant you might inherit the result of someone’s poor pre-natal choices. It was quite another thing to see it in action. The biological mother of a foster child would become part of my life. I didn’t like the idea of a woman who would smoke while pregnant having any say in her child’s life if I was the foster parent. I wondered if I’d be able to foster knowing this would be part of the deal.
 
I’m not proud of this. In fact, I am ashamed.

The power of choice

 
I get that feeling same feeling of shame after avoiding someone that makes me uncomfortable. For example, if I refuse to make eye contact with a homeless person, or I cross the street if a homeless person is walking towards me. I feel like they are a danger, or not trustworthy, and that I should avoid them. I get that twinge of shame because I know they’re human beings. They’re worthy of care and compassion, and that I can help them. I want to help them.
 
But I don’t.
 
Part of me rails against giving them anything. That’s the part of me that believes everyone has a choice and that it’s bad choices that have led them here.
 
It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance. I haven’t found the words to speak of it to my friends and family, not even my husband, before writing this today. Then, randomly, my husband quoted part of ‘Utopia for Realists’ to me. The section about the impact of stress on IQ. I realised I don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance.
 
I’m just ignorant.
 

The impact of stress on IQ

 
Turns out that when you take away someone’s money, their IQ drops by 13 points. It doesn’t matter if that person is a low-income earner or a successful CEO. If you take away their money, they get dumber.
 
13 points is significant. It’s on par with being a chronic alcoholic or pulling an all-nighter.
 
Ever made a bad decision when you had too much to drink?
 
I used to blame poor people for making bad decisions. Whether it’s the pregnant mother who smokes, or the bloke who can’t afford shoes buying their sandwiches at the petrol station. But it’s not entirely their fault. The absence of money is inhibiting their ability to make good decisions.
 
When observing 30 women whose crimes warranted a stint in maximum security, I was thinking: ‘They’re here because they made bad choices.’
 
And sure enough, when you talk to them, most admit they are there because they stuffed up.
 
But my ability to make better decisions than the residents I met is not because I am smarter, or have an inherently better character. At least part of it is that I don’t have to worry about where the money will come from to feed my family.
 
This freedom from acute financial stress allows me to make better decisions. Perhaps, in my circumstances, those residents would make better choices too.
 

Learning to question my assumptions

 
Those people who’ve made bad decisions leading to prison are pushing the proverbial up an incline. They generally get out of prison to find themselves in the same levels of IQ-hampering financial stress. On top of that, now they are less likely to land a job thanks to their criminal record. This downward spiral is vicious. It takes enormous personal fortitude and the right circumstances to overcome it.
 
Imagine trying to get out of that spiral with a handicap of 13 IQ points? It’s a big ask. Is it any wonder they often re-offend, or end up homeless?
 
Does this mean I’m going to start giving money to homeless people, or inviting ex-prisoners to live with me? Unlikely.
 
But I will keep going to prisons whenever I am invited, no matter how uncomfortable or confronting I find it. A little knowledge might be the key to escaping the spiral for one of these residents.
 
I will exercise more compassion when someone makes a ‘bad’ financial decision. Anyone could be under enough financial stress to lower their IQ by 13 points. You can’t tell who’s in that situation just by looking at them.
 
And I’ll write blogs like this, so others can learn from my mistakes and assumptions.

 
Lacey Filipich is the co-founder and director of Money School. She helps parents raise financially savvy kids and adults get on top of their finances. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow the Money School Facebook page to learn more.
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