Becky MacDicken boosts interest in banking basics behind bars.

MacDicken, 50, has worked in outreach for Pennsylvania’s Department of Banking and Securities for 12 years. And thanks to a year-and-a-half-long partnership with the state’s Department of Corrections, she now treks all over the Commonwealth teaching prison populations how to open a bank account, establish credit and achieve financial stability upon re-entry to their communities.

The partnership arose from “a perceived need for financial education with people re-entering society,” MacDicken tells Moneyish, and a desire to give re-entrants the tools they need to get back on their feet financially, become productive taxpayers, and pay back any restitution they may owe. “We also hope they can become small business owners, if that is their dream,” she adds.

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So MacDicken’s program aims to help people retrieve their credit reports, learn about advances in the banking system and create budgets. “Perhaps they’ll stay away from being desperate for money in the future, which might’ve played a role in their incarceration in the first place,” she adds. It’ll be two or three years, she says, before the department can determine any “concrete” link between re-entrants’ success and their receiving financial education.

The outreach specialist says she put 18,000 miles on a state car in 2017, hitting each of Pennsylvania’s 25 state correctional institutions at least once. “I don’t think my friends and family completely understand it. They keep asking, ‘Aren’t you scared to go in?’ And the answer is no … I’d never been in a prison before two years ago, and who knew I’d like it?” she says. “I feel like I am making a difference in their lives.”

(l. to r.) Kevin, Samuel and Eric listen as MacDicken runs through her lesson. (Shawn Baldwin)

During a June 22 visit to SCI Chester, a male medium-security facility about 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia with a population of 1,289 that day, MacDicken shepherds 15 inmates in reddish-brown D.O.C. scrubs through the basics of credit and banking, charging through clip-art-heavy PowerPoint slides on reasons to be “banked,” questions to ask before opening an account, and how to check your credit score.

“I don’t like to use a lot of statistics,” she remarks at one point. She peppers the roughly 90-minute class with anecdotes and the occasional personal opinion — opt for a credit union over institutions like Wells Fargo or Bank of America, she advises — and pauses to field inmates’ queries throughout.

The U.S. prison population ballooned starting in the 1980s, though it has decreased in recent years; almost 2.2 million people were incarcerated in prisons and jails in 2016, according to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. More than 700,000 people leave state and federal prisons every year, according to the RAND Corporation, and about four in 10 will be reincarcerated within three years of their release. At least 95% of state prison inmates will be released at some point, according to the BJS.

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But the formerly incarcerated can return to society lacking basic financial literacy: A 2014 University of Arkansas at Little Rock survey of male inmates in Arkansas, for example, found that 27% had never opened checking accounts, compared to 10% of non-inmates. Fifty-six percent of inmates reported never having had a credit card, versus nearly 28% of non-incarcerated males; about 17% of inmates said they were “non-banked.” And incarcerated people had used payday lenders at double the rate of their non-incarcerated counterparts.

SCI Chester inmate Eric, 43, says he’d never received financial education during his previous incarceration. (Facility officials declined to disclose the surnames and criminal offenses of three nonviolent offenders made available for interview.) The father of 14 is looking to get back into contractor work after his release, he tells Moneyish, and buy and sell property in Philadelphia. “I look forward to being productive when I go home,” Eric says. “And I know I need to have a business plan.”

Becky MacDicken teaches a class at SCI Chester on June 22. (Shawn Baldwin)

Research suggests that correctional education programs in general can help reduce recidivism: Inmates who receive them have 43% lower odds of winding up back in prison than those who don’t, according to a 2013 RAND report, translating to a roughly 13% reduction in the risk of recidivism relative to those who don’t receive the education. Each dollar of investment in correctional education can save four to five dollars in reincarceration costs in the first three years after release, the same meta-analysis found.

“The Department of Banking and Securities recognized they had the experience to help DOC’s returning citizens, especially since they already provide financial education to young people and seniors (among others),” Amy Worden, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, said in an email. “This would be an extension of what they already do.” The partnership began informally in October of 2016 and was formalized in February of 2017, MacDicken says.

Kevin, 35, was incarcerated a total of 38 months, seven of which he spent at the Chester facility. He was released days after he spoke with Moneyish. “Before I came to prison, banking and finance — I didn’t care about it. As long as the bills got paid, that’s all I really cared about,” he says after MacDicken’s class. “Now I see that it’s going to take me further in life, and it would have been a lot easier if I would have had banking and financing before.”

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And 38-year-old Samuel says he plans to go to a credit union after his scheduled May 25, 2019 release. “I never had a bank account before,” he says. “I was saving my money in a safe box.” Samuel plans to continue working as a mechanic after he walks free, he says, “and figure out a good plan of how to build my credit so that I can progress in the world.”

MacDicken, a Michigan State University poli-sci major who wanted to be a doctor when she was little, terms her career trajectory “very bizarre.” She went on to work for the House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee in Washington, D.C., and later lobbied for small-business issues for 11 years. (MacDicken also performed improv comedy for a few years in the ’90s, an experience she says has “helped tremendously” with her presentations.) Her business background brought her to Pennsylvania, where she started her state job in 2006.

Samuel, 38, expects to be released from SCI Chester on May 25, 2019.

MacDicken tailors her spiel to the distinct concerns facing inmates and their vulnerabilities. She touches on potential reasons not to be banked — among them owing money and not wanting to be found due to safety concerns — and addresses the dangers of identity theft while they’re inside, as friends or family could take their Social Security number or write bad checks in their name.

“Many of them have never had an experience with a bank before. They’ve worked in cash-only businesses prior to their incarceration, and maybe that’s part of what got them here,” she says. “In talking about bank accounts, we need to be honest with them, too, that maybe they can’t have an account. If they ever had an account in the past and left it in poor standing, they may owe a bank or credit union money.

“They also may not want a bank account until they’ve addressed any debts they might have with a government entity such as the IRS, the court systems for child support, and court fines and restitution to victims’ funds … They may need to figure that out first before opening their bank account,” MacDicken adds. “So I try to be honest with them about things like that, and that is definitely unique to this population.”

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She also addresses “cultural” considerations, like toting around large sums of cash. “For some people, that is a status symbol, and you are never going to talk them out of wanting to do that and show off that they have that wad of cash, even if it then makes them a target for someone to rob them later,” she says. “That’s how they were raised and that’s their culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just trying to give them a little food for thought as to why maybe there is another way … to show status.”

It’s important to remain nonjudgmental as an outsider visiting a prison, MacDicken says, especially as a subject-matter expert. While she felt a bit nervous about the gig at first, she adds, she recognized that “these are people and they deserve this education; they deserve some tools to help them get back on their feet.”

Plus, she adds, inmates can be even more receptive to the information than some other audiences. “These are people, and they are hungry for the information, and they’re so pleased most of the time to be there,” MacDicken says. “It’s just been very rewarding, personally speaking, to be doing this, and seeing the lightbulb moments.”