Whether they are teaching financial literacy to inmates behind bars at the Utah State Prison or to teenagers at the South Park Academy in Draper, UT, school counselor Elaine Peterson and teacher Gae Wagstaff are dedicated to the cause of financial literacy. They are two of 30 teachers instructing the Life Skills courses to incarcerated inmates in the prison's drug rehabilitation program.
Prior to incarceration, money often served one purpose to these individuals: feeding a drug habit. Today, as Peterson and Wagstaff teach the principals of investing, the student inmates are often surprised to discover the simple and benefits of money management. The 18-hour, 9-week course is part of the prison life skills curriculum, which includes other classes such as goal setting, parenting, anger management and job readiness. While the inmate students are very respectful of the South Park Academy teachers, Peterson said their confidence level entering the program is typically not high.
Many of the inmate-students enter the classroom with obstacles they need to overcome, most central being their negative association of what money represents. "Teaching them, or re-teaching them, as part of their rehabilitation is teaching good money management habits so they don't view money as a trigger to start using again," said Peterson, who is the coordinator for the Life Skills education program, and has been involved since 1993.
The incarcerated felons in the adult prison facility are typically 21 and older but there are younger inmates, both male and female. They are serving anywhere from 5 years to life sentences for committing crimes ranging from homicide to embezzlement.
"We require financial literacy (education) because we know that financial trouble is one of the things that keeps them coming back to prison," she noted, adding that financial literacy education has been a requirement for high school graduation by the State of Utah since 2003. Of the 132 South Park Academy graduates paroled in 2008, 56 came back to prison while 76 stayed out. Non-graduates came back to prison at a much higher rate of 80 percent. /p>
The average cost of incarcerating and inmate is $27,000 annually, which represents "a $2 million savings to Utah tax payers for just incarceration costs alone," said Peterson, who added, "The real benefit is to the community."
Each student at the Utah State Prison goes through an evaluation process upon entry into the system, which identifies their education, life skills and mental health background before they are placed in educational programming. Typical financial literacy class size is about 20 where the students learn to identify at least three future financial goals as part of the Investment Plan Development curriculum. Students learn about the following investment options: Insurance (life, health, disability, auto), Savings, Real Estate, and Career Investments.
Additionally students compare each area and decide which gives them the greatest opportunity to meet financial goals. Then they contrast between future financial goals and how close they are to either meeting or distancing them from those goals. In the end, graduates leave with a specific plan that outlines the time, money, and work necessary to achieve their goals.
Peterson highlighted Wagstaff's role as being central to elevating the attitudes of students and their abilities. "She inspires them to create a plan that is realistic; to have options —rather than setbacks — as they prepare for success…All have substance abuse problems, yet Gae instills in them that they can do hard things, that they are bright enough to function in our society, and they can better their lives through education by engaging in critical thinking skills and long term goal setting," said Peterson.
Practical Money Skills commends Ms. Peterson and Ms. Wagstaff and the South Park Academy staff for their contributions to financial literacy.