Educating Inmates: Royal Credit Union’s Success

Mary Ginder teaches inmates as part of Royal CU’s Correctional Facility Program. Ginder, one of the program’s first instructors, is now retired. Photo courtesy of Royal’s Correctional Facility Program.

Nearly seven years ago, in the fall of 2015, a very small team from the Eau Claire, Wis.-based Royal Credit Union began their financial education journey inside the Eau Claire County Jail to teach inmates the ins and outs of money management.

The initial idea was presented to Royal by a local non-profit group, Literacy Chippewa Valley. The group had been offering educational programs inside the jail and saw a need for financial education for inmates.

That small team – just one person – from Royal developed a curriculum focused on spending habits, dealing with debt, creating a budget and building credit. The classes were a hit and soon after the program began, Royal officials saw how the class could easily be replicated for other correctional facilities in Wisconsin. The feedback from the students and their appreciation of the classes was so good that within a year, Royal’s Correctional Facility Financial Education program launched in the Barron County Jail. Five months later in February 2017, classes began in the Dunn County Jail, and eventually the Wisconsin Department of Corrections took notice and classes started in the Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility, a minimum-security prison located in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

What began as a small project in one jail with one instructor has grown into partnerships with five correctional facilities, where Royal staff have provided financial education to more than 1,700 people. Currently, eight credit union representatives are involved with administering and teaching the classes.

The program has become somewhat of a keystone of caring for the credit union.

“So the thing I love about our correctional facility educational program is it’s absolutely a cross-functional initiative at our credit union,” Vice President of Community Engagement Jennifer McHugh said. “We have member account representatives, PR people, an executive assistant who teaches classes and a branch supervisor who teaches classes. So we have people from multiple business units who are going into the communities where they’re located into correctional facilities in their areas to provide this education.”

In the county jails, classroom sizes range from two to 10 people. In the larger, state-run facility, class sizes can total 20 to 30 people.

Royal Community Financial Education Coordinator Cooper Larson began teaching classes at the facilities more than two years ago and said she wasn’t prepared for how much it would mean to her personally and her credit union career.

“I cry every time I get to talk about this program,” Larson said.

She continued, “I didn’t realize that it would be something I would be so passionate about. It means the world to me to be able to be a really small portion of these individuals’ lives and hopefully, you know, make an impact on them through financial education, something that we, none of us really get enough training on.”

While the first time entering a jail or prison and going through security and metal detectors was nerve-wracking for Larson, she said she quickly realized a significant truth: “Once you’re in that room, you’re all just people, you know ? It goes back to our credit union philosophy. We’re all just people helping people. And I instantly was just like, this is right. This is what I’m doing.”

Larson and other Royal officials noted that instructors enter the classrooms without judgment and do not pry into the reasons why inmates are in jail. “I don’t ask, because it doesn’t matter to my teaching,” Larson said.

Royal has a two- and three-session curriculum where Larson or another instructor goes into the correctional facility once each week.

“I’ve observed the program in action, and definitely was inspired by the work our team is doing,” Royal President/CEO Brandon Riechers said. “We’re always looking for ways to financially empower individuals and certainly positively impact the communities that we serve. This program is a perfect example of how we deliver on the credit union philosophy of people helping people in a meaningful way.”

Adding to the success and recognition of the program, in 2019 the credit union received the “Impact Tracking of Financial Health Components” grant from the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF) for $7,500 to study the effectiveness of the program.

Royal used the money to work with researchers from the University of Wisconsin – Stout Applied Research Center to examine the curriculum.

Photo courtesy of Royal’s Correctional Facility Program.

According to findings published recently in the “Making a Difference: Correctional Facility Financial Education” report, there are “statistically significant gains in content knowledge, attitudes and confidence levels regarding financial literacy. Identifying predatory lending behaviors, understanding that there are different ways to pay down debt, and comprehensive awareness of the impact of credit scores and credit reports were a few of the topics where our students showed gains.”

The findings were a particular source of pride for 11-year Royal veteran McHugh. “We are now able to say it works!” she said. “When people find themselves in these situations for whatever choices they’ve made, that’s not for us to judge; but we can do something to help them try to get their life back on track.”

Photo courtesy of Royal’s Correctional Facility Program.

Royal officials said COVID-19 brought in-person classes to a halt, but class instructors were able to conduct virtual classes. That pandemic snag hasn’t stopped the momentum of the classroom successes or plans for the future.

According to the report, Royal would welcome the chance to offer the correctional facilities program in its Minnesota field of membership. While that option is being explored, “preliminary discussions are also occurring to assess the feasibility of creating recorded modules that could be offered digitally to persons in the care of correctional facilities to expand their financial knowledge at their own pace,” the report read.

Riechers said he has heard from some credit union officials and that interest has peaked in Royal’s program, but he’s not aware of any other credit union that has started a similar program.

“It at least has sparked some interest. We’ve had some interest from both politicians and regulators in the State of Wisconsin that are very intrigued by the program. And just continuing to tell that story has been an important aspect of it too. Because certainly we can’t hit all the facilities, but if we can share some of the successes from some of the things we learned along the way, it makes it a little bit easier for somebody to start up a program,” Riechers said.

McHugh said she hopes the research report moves other credit unions to launch similar programs.

“We really opened up the playbook on how this program grew and what we teach and how we teach it. And you know what to think about when you’re an educator. We wanted to inspire others to start doing this in their own communities. We’re not just in our little corner of Wisconsin doing our work; we’ve shared what we’ve learned with others so that hopefully they can deliver a program like this as well,” she said.

Larson said she views the program in very simple terms: “To hopefully help them better their futures as they’re entering their communities again. That’s the thing that interests me most, just making that small impact and hopefully setting these individuals up for long-term success and the life that they’re working to build.”

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