Zak Williams may not be as well-known as his late father, Robin Williams, but the impact he is having on the lives of others is no less note-worthy. A Columbia MBA, Williams has been working at San Quentin State Prison to provide prisoners with important financial skills to help facilitate their rehabilitation efforts.
He is working alongside the inmate known as “Wall Street,” Curtis Carroll. Carroll is serving a life sentence, but knows the value of such classes given his own misguided focus on crime for financial gain. So they’ve developed a popular program at the facility to help inmates avoid many of the pitfalls that can lead to disaster.
Preparing an inmate for re-entry into the working world goes beyond providing them with literacy and job skills, because getting a job is really only the first step towards making a life outside the walls of an institution. Many prisoners will be leaving the facilities with few to no financial resources; they might literally be starting at rock bottom. They will need to learn how to re-establish credit, they may have existing debts, and they may have a history of “high risk” decisions that may actually have played a role in their incarceration.
The banking habits of many of the poor rely on predatory lenders cashing “payday loans” and delving them further and further into debt. And unfortunately for some of those desperate people, it leads them to crime. With little knowledge about financial management, saving, debt reduction, retirement preparations, or investment, many who left that life for one in prison, are bound to return to it. Some facilities currently offer large-scale classes on the subject, but inmates find that without opportunities for in-depth or one-on-one interactions, their scope is too limited to be of help. Williams and Carroll are changing the way these programs are run, and the results so far are promising.
We push for educating inmates because we want them to leave prison with the skills needed to become contributing members of society—so why financial information is so often precluded from curriculum is a mystery. Especially given that one study has identified that there is a much higher likelihood of former inmates working freelance or in an entrepreneurial capacity, where financial knowledge is critical. Financial education is also important for their time while they’re incarcerated; it is all too easy for people to take advantage of the loved ones of those in prison.
While finally gaining your freedom is clearly a celebratory moment, re-entry can be absolutely terrifying for those who are unprepared for the challenges of day-to-day life in a world that is dramatically different from the one they left. The contributions of the likes of Carroll and Williams are seriously underrated, but ones that we can hope will be expanded to other institutions across the country. Financial acumen is an important element of the education puzzle that’s frequently lost in prison programs, yet it might well be one of the most important.