Today I Spoke In Prison

Colin writes… After being told to remove anything of value from your pockets and putting them in a locker, a tattooed security guard walks you through the metal detector and through the first remotely-opened security door. The guard’s name is Dave, and he’s been working at the correctional facility for just over 10 years. We wait in the first airlock, before our second security door is opened from somewhere else in the building. We walk down a long, gray corridor, lit by halogen lights and smelling of cleaning chemicals, and into the prison population.

Dave takes me to the gym, where I meet the coordinator who has asked me to come speak today. I waited almost 30 minutes in the lobby for her due to a mixup, with it dawning on me slowly that the women I was about to speak to have been waitin

g like that too, except for years. How do you find motivation amidst a life of waiting? How do you find hope that your life can be better or different when you’re waiting for it to begin?

Dave hands me off to the coordinator, Sara, who brings me into a freezing cold gym filled with empty chairs. There’s a problem with the heat this morning. Outside is having the same problem, during the night it had been -25. As Dave handed me off, he said, “Please stay with Sara at all times. You need to be sure and be safe, ok?” And then said, a little lower, and a little more intently, “You’re among murderers, drug dealers and rapists now.”

I waited for the women to come in. I find out from Tom, head of the work readiness education program, that even in prison attendance at skill-building events is an issue. So I was pleased when the seats eventually filled, and I looked at the group of about 25 women. In prisonwear, down to their shower sandals. Some sat in the seats facing me, open and approachable. Others lingered in the back rows or against the wall, waiting to make a judgment if this was worth their time. Others sat close together and began braiding each others hair. A woman in the back had brought a notebook.

I get it. Hopelessness, in its most everyday form, is the fear that you can’t learn a new skill. “Today, I’m going to talk to you about money. And not money in general, but what money looks like to you.”

I knew that for many of these women money had been a motivator in going to prison, or in getting out of it, or between them and their partners, their kids, their family members. For them, just like everyone else, money mostly makes us stressful and fearful.

After starting with a joke, they opened up to me. They told me that money was today a source of stress, but also perhaps someday a possible source of security. They told me that money leads to greed, but agreed when I offered I think money doesn’t create greed as much as reveal it.

All the while, I practiced what have become the foundational elements of StandUpMoney: humor, honesty, relatibility and respect. I listened with a smile and showed genuine interest in them. I asked and repeated their names whenever I could. I didn’t back away from the deeper areas their questions about money took us. I told them, “If there is a person you most want to be, or you are hoping to become, I’ll tell you that saving money is the first step toward becoming that person. If there is a version of your life you’d prefer to see than this, this is how you will make the space you need to become that person.”

I asked them why they wouldn’t save. Martha said it perfectly. “I have trouble with saving. I live in the now. I can’t think about the future, I just think about today. When I get money, I spend it. I guess if I had a goal, and actually believed it could happen… but, I don’t know. I was raised this way. ‘If you have money you spend money.’”

Martha was vocalizing financial fatalism. ‘Why plan for tomorrow, when all I can hope for is today?’ And buried in her response was the key: a goal. I got Martha to share with us that her guilty pleasure at the commissary is peanuts. $1.50 a bag. A bag a day is $547.50 a year. And in 10 years that’s $5,475. “First off, I wouldn’t ask you to stop buying peanuts, because you like them. But what if you bought them one less day per week? And on that day, when you think about peanuts, you think about this person that you most want to be, about the financial independence you want to have someday, and the new life you’re going to start for yourself?” We laughed – it was ridiculous. “You’ll be no fun at parties now, that’s for sure. But think about this: that’s $469.50. You’ve saved $78. Simply by saying that, on Wednesdays, I skip the peanuts and think about my more important goal.” (I was tempted to tell her if she could get it down to four times a week, she’d save $235. But I didn’t because the key to behavior change is the smallest step possible, and I couldn’t ask her to practice this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from here on out.)

Martha nodded. She was going to do it. And I believe she will. So much of money is being willing to allow for the possibility that changing your behavior will change your opportunities. It’s about discipline. It’s also about hope.

As we ended I realized I’d never taken my notes about my pocket. As I hoped would happen, they had interacted enough and personalized the topic enough to completely guide our conversation. They were kind to me, they were attentive, and they revealed many times nonverbally throughout our talk that they desperately wanted to move toward the vision I suggested for them.

I don’t know much about them except what I saw. And in those 45 minutes, I didn’t see criminals. I saw people. Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. I saw women struggling to overcome their hopelessness. I’m so honored to have been given the opportunity to stand in front of them, give them one healthy money skill that could create incredible possibilities. Mostly I’m grateful to have been able to show them, in every way I could, that they matter.


(Names changed)


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