Before the pandemic, three Presbyterian friends and I, a Quaker, taught a weekly class at a local parole center in which men and women on parole read and talked about money and how to manage it. Our textbook was What I Learned About Life When My Husband Got Fired! A Real Approach to Personal Finance and Prioritizing Your Life by Red and Black. The pseudonymous authors, named for their hair color, are sisters. Red, who led a sheltered life, relied on her much more worldly sister when her husband suddenly lost his job. They used their texts, phone calls, and experiences as the basis for this curriculum, which is approved for use in Texas high schools and has been used by incarcerated people in the state.
Sponsored by a chaplain, our secular program was an experiment in presenting eight-week classes to people newly paroled. It was one of several kinds of classes offered. All took place at a facility devoted to tracking people who had recently returned to the community, and to promoting their success.
The format of our textbook gave us the chance to talk about the decisions the sisters made and the strategies they used to get Red’s family on track for survival after the shock of the firing. Though the students generally kept the details of their crimes to themselves, we all talked about our experiences with money. Often recalling our families of origin, we explored the many ways people think about money and use it. We discussed what we thought of Red’s and Black’s choices, and we could be quite critical of the authors. I wondered if some of our students might feel some pleasure in giving, rather than receiving, a scolding for a bad decision. My fellow instructors and I could observe similarities and differences between our students’ lives and ours. As the only librarian in the bunch, I became notorious for bringing in clippings and printouts to augment the curriculum.
At the final class meeting, the students filled out questionnaires about their responses to the classes and wrote thank-you notes to the anonymous donor of their textbooks. When they chatted about the class, their responses seemed positive. One man admitted that being assigned to the class had made him angry at first. I recalled leaving our first class as another car peeled out of the parking lot and hit the road with a squeal. I wondered if he had been the driver, though I said nothing.
The man went on to say how pleasantly surprised he was with his own reaction to the classes after all. Sometimes a student would say that they had initially assumed the class would be about drugs or about religion.
That response took me back to the mandatory orientation I had attended at the jail itself. At that orientation session, all the other attenders had been folks from religious groups who were preparing to become prison visitors. Though I learned some valuable lessons about what we could and could not do for men and women in the system, much of that day’s meeting would not apply to those of us working at the parole center. (I do remember learning not to dress in the color of the prisoners’ uniforms; in case of tear gas and mayhem, the guards wanted to be able to identify the visitors and get them out quickly.) What struck me was the way in which prisoners might be captive audiences for citizens who visit prisons as a religious duty and to whom prisoners are a vineyard of souls to be harvested.
I imagined the level of boredom and limitation for these paroled men and women in our class, newly freed but still substantially restricted. Could that account, in part, for their evident enthusiasm for chatting about money with four elderly retired public servants? That’s what we were.
So were three others from El Paso (Texas) Meeting who, prior to the pandemic, traveled faithfully to La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution for repeated visits with inmates there who might not be visited otherwise. From these Friends from my meeting, I got the impression that, despite the noisy atmosphere, the people at La Tuna, whom they talked with about all kinds of things, relished the interaction with somebody from the outside world who was there just to see them.
For the most understandable reasons, incarceration takes people out of circulation. As a by-product of the system, they are not in a position to learn the things that the rest of us learn in the normal process of maturation. How to handle money is only one of those things. Though I didn’t know the nature of our students’ crimes, I could imagine that drug problems might have led to money problems that, in turn, led to serious legal trouble. No matter the nature of the crime, when contact with ordinary people and everyday experience is disrupted, making up for lost time can be difficult.
Once when a student asked whether anyone knew of a source of inexpensive dental treatment, another student was able to recommend a local clinic. Yet another student pointed out that such a helpful exchange usually violates regulations, since paroled people are warned against even casual interaction with other offenders.
We learned firsthand, too, how important it is to get a job and how unlikely any of our students were to be chosen if the employer could find an applicant who didn’t have a criminal record. Again, though this is understandable, it’s yet another indication of how being taken out of the community of ordinary, law-abiding people results in deficits of experience that are hard to make up for.
On the questionnaire that participants fill out during their final class meeting, they are asked whether they think our program may help prevent recidivism. We never see their answers, though I hope the answer is yes.
The best prison programs offer academic classes for inmates, but the simple experience of talking with ordinary people about ordinary life is necessarily missing while society is being protected from offenders. I hope that when people can safely meet face to face again, there might be more programs that offer such opportunities for prisoners and for the newly released.