What I Learned From a Day in Prison

By Rachel Pross, AVP of Risk Management, Oregon State Credit Union

As a relatively new employee of Oregon State Credit Union, I have been eager to learn all about our community outreach efforts so I can speak from first-hand experience on the advocacy front. On August 13, I had the unique opportunity to shadow Anissa Arthenayake, Director of Community Education, as she made her weekly rounds at various correctional facilities.

While I was completely fascinated with what Anissa does, I admit that I was a tad apprehensive. All I knew of prison or jail came from my father (a retired policeman who put the fear of God into each of us to avoid it), The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption.

I met Anissa at 7:45am and headed up to Salem. Throughout the day, we visited the Santiam Correctional Institution, De Muniz Resource Center (a re-entry program), and the Oregon State Correctional Institution.

Anissa taught the same class at all three, and it happened to be the final class in an eight-week series. Her financial education classes cover the following topics: cash flow and paycheck planning, budgeting, saving, credit, debt, checkbook management, ID theft, and predatory lending practices.

Each student has his own Oregon State Credit Union accordion file filled with reading material, worksheets, and class materials. Students have assigned reading each week, homework, and then in-class discussion and activities.

The goal? Teaching inmates the basic financial skills they need to have a chance at success on the outside—and thereby reducing recidivism, increasing self-esteem and self-reliance, and increasing the odds of eventually becoming a fruitful member of the community.

Here are some things I learned from my day in prison:

  1. We have so much to be thankful for. Prison is a sad place. Though inmates are there for a reason and must suffer the consequences of their actions, they are still a part of the world we live in, and many will once again be members of our communities. The inmates were nothing but polite and respectful, and they showed tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to learn. I was surprised at how many young men there were in Anissa’s classes, and I met at least two young veterans.
  2. The inmates in Anissa’s classes were students by choice. There is even a wait list! The students I met had carefully completed their homework and were proud to show it, and many had highlighted or underlined sections of their assigned readings. They enthusiastically clapped for one another when graduation certificates were handed out at the end of class, and one group even celebrated with cinnamon rolls.
  3. Lack of very fundamental financial education is far more common than I realized. Many of the men had never had a savings account, and Anissa face-palmed and exclaimed, “You’re killing me!” when one of the inmates suggested that cash is the safest way to pay rent.
  4. There are still moments of humor in prison. When it came to the topic of keeping information safe, Anissa talked about how important it is to shred personal documents. She said, “Think of what the bad guys could do with your stolen information.” The whole room erupted in quiet chuckles. We were in a room of “bad guys” learning how to stay safe from the “bad guys.”
  5. Credit unions are amazing. I knew that already, of course, but I saw it again in prison. The desire to invest in the communities we serve is in the DNA of this industry. I am so very humbled to be a part of it. The outreach Anissa does is not a money-maker. It costs money, actually, in the form of classroom materials, time, and personnel. Having said that, it is richly rewarding. Our members trust us with their money, and I saw just one way it is being put to meaningful use.

My day ended with an inmate telling me that he was teaching his twenty year old son via telephone what he had learned from Anissa.

He said, “If he can learn how to manage his money now and go to a credit union, maybe he won’t end up in the same place as me.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

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