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You're the boss: prison inmates take charge of their money

27 April 2020 Stories of hope

“You don’t forget the first time you visit a prison,” begins Jacqui.

“For me it was Bathurst Men’s Prison. But by day two of the training, I realised that the people there were just people and they wanted to learn. It is a real privilege to go into prisons, to be with people who are re-evaluating their lives.”

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Adapting to a new environment has become second nature for Jacqui. A Trainer Educator for Wesley Financial Literacy, Jacqui has been delivering Wesley Mission’s ‘In Charge of My Money’ program at seven correctional centres across New South Wales as part of High Intensity Program Units (HIPU) – a financial literacy program funded by the Department of Justice, Corrective Services NSW.

Jacqui is one of 16 Wesley Mission staff, led by Wesley Mission’s Strategic Relationships Manager Sam, who are providing hope to prison inmates. Since February 2019, 735 inmates have attended Wesley Mission’s ‘In Charge of My Money’ – a program which has supported vulnerable Australians manage their money and avoid debt since 2011. HIPU aims to reduce and break the cycle of re-offending in New South Wales.

“Participants tell us that money was one of the factors that brought them here in the first place, that it was all they had ever known. But that they want to change,” says Jacqui.

Mid North Coast prison inmate and HIPU participant Adele shares her struggle with reoffending.

“I’ve been in [prison] three times last year and this year because I get out and I’ve got nothing and I’ve got to try and deal with a mortgage and children… with no support at all. So I just keep going back because it’s too easy.”

HIPU is a unique program. Purpose-built, standalone and self-contained training facilities are fitted for each correctional centre. Ranging from minimum to maximum security correctional centres, Jacqui says our trainers must be prepared for anything. Working in teams of two, adapting to a new environment becomes second nature.

“It’s a different training environment. Usually we teach using PowerPoint but in prison we use printed visual aids. You’ve got to make sure that everything that goes in, needs to come out. Even things like calculators. We wear duress alarms when we are there.”

Our HIPU trainers quickly realised traditional teaching styles wouldn’t work in this environment. So they adjusted.

“We’re here to come alongside, not to teach,” says Sam. “Everybody’s sitting in a circle or semi-circle. We open up the conversation. We get a lot of inmates to write on the board and we empower them to come up with ideas.”

To help the inmates relax in their learning environment, our HIPU trainers don’t wear a uniform.

“We come in representing the community that are wanting to help and that actually goes a long way for the inmates. Especially when they’re in an environment where everyone’s wearing a uniform. It’s very controlled. Then we come in there as a sign that things can change when you come out of prison,” explains Sam.

And for each correctional centre, the course content for Wesley Mission’s In Charge of My Money has been altered to suit the different needs of inmates.

Adaptation is key to the success of HIPU. Many inmates feel disempowered according to Sam. They feel they’ve lost control over their lives and have no hope for the future.

“Some have even said, ‘I’ve hit the bottom, and this is it’,” says Sam.

So instead of a teaching a financial literacy course, they are showing inmates how to be ‘the boss of their money’ – a phrase that strongly resonates.

“The term ‘financial literacy’ sounds very formal, but when you offer people a chance to be ‘the boss of their money’, they are all ears,” says Jacqui.

To help inmates break the re-offending cycle, the program identifies debt traps and offers safe financial support through Wesley Financial Counsellors.

“There are a lot of places you can go if you’re having trouble with money, but not all the places have your best interests or your growth at heart. We can hand on heart tell them our services have your good at heart,” explains Sam.

And it’s not just influencing the prison inmates.

“Not only are they taking that knowledge themselves, but they’re passing it to family – people who are significant to them,” says Sam.