In an effort to reach more people who might benefit from learning about financial capability, BROC-Community Action in Southwestern Vermont has been offering a monthly workshop at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility.
Shelley Faris, team leader of the Economic and Workforce Development Program at BROC, said bringing resources to the Rutland prison is in line with the agency’s mission.
“BROC’s mission, as ‘community action,’ is to improve people’s lives and this is definitely a sector of the community that I feel we can help,” she said.
The Rutland jail frequently houses people who will be released shortly.
“Those are the ones we would like to talk to so that we can make sure they are aware of community resources, especially (the resources at) BROC, and future thinking in a positive way,” Faris said.
The workshop is not a requirement for inmates. Faris said some months she sees repeat attendees and some months all new people. Sometimes she’s meeting with a group of three people and other times there are 18 at the workshop.
“It’s not how many. If I help one fellow, that’s success. … I’ve had a couple fellows kind of have that ‘aha’ moment. The light bulb just went on while we were having a conversation. That, I always think, is wonderful,” she said.
The inmates direct the workshops according to their interests and questions. Faris said she frequently discusses student loans or credit reports including steps that can be taken to improve the report, the method of making corrections and credit repair.
“I do a lot of work around educating people about them, as many people don’t understand them, and they’ve become the go-to document to judge us for everything from getting an apartment to fuel service,” Faris said.
BROC does not charge the Vermont Department of Corrections for the workshops.
“We’re just trying to get the guys better prepared for when they are released that they can become productive members of the community and can work toward becoming self-sufficient,” said John Cassarino, coordinator of volunteer services at Marble Valley.
Faris said she discusses strategies with inmates because they are stressed about their financial health once they re-enter the community.
“When you’re in there, your financial life comes to a screeching halt. They’re worried their credit cards aren’t being paid, their car payments aren’t being paid. Unless they have someone outside, helping to manage their financial life, they really have no opportunity to do that,” she said.
Faris runs the Individual Development Account program, a matched savings program for BROC. She said her work on the IDA, as well as her own history including self-employment, helping her children and selling real estate, has taught her about finances and financial resources in the area.
“A lot of it is encouraging people. We’ve all made mistakes with our money. We’ve all struggled with money. We’ve all wanted some of those bigger assets in life and felt maybe like you couldn’t get to that goal, but I can assure people that you can,” she said.
According to Faris, some of the inmates who have been released have come to see her at BROC’s offices on Union Street to talk about credit rehabilitation or find resources for starting a business. She said some of the inmates realize their time in prison makes it harder to find jobs so they turn to entrepreneurship for self-employment.
“Come see us, and we’ll do whatever. We have housing counselors here. We have a food shelf. We’ll help you apply for food stamps. Sometimes it can be mind-boggling (but we can help with questions like) ‘What agency do I start at? Who do I go see? Where do I go?’ We’re kind of good at that here,” Faris said.
A former resident of Carson City, Nevada, Faris said one aspect of her internship was to visit prisons as part of the “Scared Straight” program. After that, Marble Valley was not a particularly intimidating place to enter on a monthly basis, she said.
Two years in, Faris said, the workshops are providing a valuable service.
“I think the last one, I had 15 fellows there. They’re very interactive. A lot of questions and dialogue going on. The thing that I love is when I can get maybe some of the younger fellows talking to the older fellows, who maybe already have had businesses or have their own experiences dealing with credit or credit cards and things like that,” she said.
Cassarino said volunteers are important because they demonstrate that there are community members who want the inmates to be successful.
“Regardless of what they’ve done, a large percentage of the inmate population in the state are going to be released back into the community. Our goal is to work with these individuals while they are in our facilities to teach them skills that give them a better chance at success while they’re out,” he said.