Former inmates learn finance skills in first-of-its-kind reality fair

Harrisburg Community Corrections Center resident Keith Wilson, right, discusses cellphone costs with a volunteer during a March 4 financial reality fair at the Capitol Region Careerlink in Harrisburg. - (Photo / Jennifer Wentz)

Keith Wilson has never had to live on $1,200 a month.

He used to support himself by selling drugs, he said, and ultimately served prison time because of it. He now lives in the Harrisburg Community Corrections Center and is readying to re-enter society.

A first-of-its-kind event Saturday – a financial reality fair specifically for former inmates – offered him a glimpse of what life might look like when he does.

The Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, along with state entities like the Department of Banking and Securities and Department of Corrections, teamed up for the pilot event with the hopes of teaching community corrections residents about the basics of living within their means.

Financial reality fairs start with participants receiving a list of incomes and expenses they might encounter in the real world. They then visit a series of tables that present them with common life choices – like renting an apartment, buying a cellphone or adopting a pet – and have to work those expenses into their budgets.

Such fairs are not a new concept; the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association has held more than 100 at high schools throughout the state over the years, said association spokesman Michael Wishnow.

Saturday, however, was the first time the group has held the event for community corrections residents. The format was basically the same as the association’s offerings at high schools, except it included financial situations former inmates might encounter, like fines, entry-level wages, government assistance and child support payments. 

Wilson was among several attendees, all from Harrisburg’s Community Corrections Center, who said the event offered a wake-up call. 

“Just to get my hair cut and pay my cellphone bill, I’m already down $200,” he said just a few minutes after the fair’s start.

Jennifer Wentz

The event, which could eventually be repeated for residents of community corrections centers throughout the commonwealth, is one of several recent ways Pennsylvania has ramped up its efforts to make sure former offenders have the finance skills to get back on their feet after leaving custody.

The state’s Department of Corrections entered a formal partnership with the Department of Banking and Securities about a month ago to teach workshops on budgeting, predatory loans and other topics to people in the corrections system, said Becky MacDicken of the Department of Banking.

People in prison or community corrections centers might not have ever had a banking account, or they might not understand the significance of a credit score, she said. They are also subject to schemes like identity theft, even while they are still behind bars, making the need for financial education all the more important.

These classes complement the state’s other re-entry readiness programs, like vocational training, resume-writing classes and GED courses, said Shirley Moore Smeal, executive deputy secretary for the Department of Corrections. Such offerings can help reduce recidivism by teaching inmates legitimate ways to provide for themselves and their families, she said.

Moore Smeal does not expect department budget cuts – including an initiative to halve the state’s community corrections population by June 30 – to have a negative effect on the new finance offerings.

Even if inmates don’t remember every detail they learn in these programs, MacDicken hopes the training will at least plant the seed that they can reach out to her department if they need help after release.

Carl Vennie is among the community corrections residents who hope that help will be there when he needs it. The 53-year-old lost his mother not long ago, he said, which means he will be on his own after he leaves the halfway house.

Saturday’s fair, he said, was a much-appreciated start to showing him how to restart life the right way.

“It made me separate my needs from my wants,” he said.

Jennifer Wentz
Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com.

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