Why I Built a Banking System for Young Men Inside DC Jail

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  • I was incarcerated at 18, so when I had the chance to mentor other young men, I knew what to do.
  • I created a program for 18-25 year olds, Young Men Emerging, to teach financial literacy.
  • I built a banking system, including currency, accounts, and shopping services, inside the DC prison.
  • Read more stories from Personal Finance Insider.

In 2018, I was approached by executive staff at the Washington, DC prison to help set up a program for emerging adults ages 18-25 that focused on mentorship. As someone who was incarcerated at 18, it was personal: I knew there was a void during that time for me, and I wanted to create a mentorship community for these young men.

I soon realized, however, that the plan in place for the unit – to have residents “pay rent” or create a budget – was very theoretical. As a financial geek and author of a series of books on investing, I knew that a piece of paper outlining this idea would be worthless; we needed real money.

For something to be called money, it must have three properties: a unit of measure; stored value; and a medium of exchange. With this philosophy in mind, my co-founding mentor Michael Woody and I created a banking system, unique to our unit, inside the prison – one with a monetary system and community structure.

We built a banking system for emerging young men

We called the Young Men Emerging (YME) program. YME’s goal was to create an equitable and therapeutic environment for young adults that fosters growth and development, as opposed to the punitive and warehousing practices that mark traditional prison spaces. YME is a community that allows older men who have served long incarceration sentences (think 15, 20, 25 years) to act as mentors to recently incarcerated young people aged 18-25.

In addition to the program bringing in speakers, holding counseling sessions and offering advice regarding the cases of our mentees, we have built a physical monetary system: we have invoices worth $5 to $100 ; each invoice is stored in the form of laminated paper; and YME money is fully active – you can earn money, get deposits to your account or get deductions to your account. We built this system to make sure these young men are financially savvy and confident about earning, spending and saving money before they re-enter.

My team has created missions that, when completed, warrant payment. For example, we have something we call community cleanliness. I gave a guy $500 the other day because of his community cleanup work. I had given him a special project: there was dust in our air vents, so I said, “Listen, look, get yourself a bucket, put some disinfectant in it, and get a rag.” He got creative, grabbed some Q-tips and went inside the vents. He did a fabulous job. This restoration of the unit was a project he did on behalf of the entire community, so I had to pay him $500 for it. We give the guys money for their participation – it’s a smart way to spark community building and civic engagement.

We’ve created opportunities for the YME community to spend their hard-earned money

Money must move; it is important. But inside prison walls, this is not always the case. And if the money doesn’t move, it doesn’t make sense. That’s why we created a currency that can be used. Mentors got together and pooled our money to buy Commissary items and said, “You can earn and use YME money to buy these items.” This has especially motivated people who have no money from family or friends. And the people who visit our community – like stakeholders, organizations and volunteers – have been touched by it. Most notably, someone made a large donation and we were able to purchase $5,000 worth of inventory for the YME store.

We bet on YME money like the government bet on the US dollar. It has value, and when someone does something, they are rewarded. They can take that money and buy an item, or they can try out one of our other gear. We have a hair salon because my motto is if you look good, you feel good and you act good. Now when a guy has an outside visitor, like family, he can feel good and be cared for. You pay $50 for a haircut, $25 for movie tickets, $100 to play Xbox, etc.

I even attached a percentage-based fee to incentivize our mentees to do math. On Halloween, for example, we took seasonal photos. I charged each individual $10 per photo, and added an additional 20% if they wanted me to email those photos to their family (due to my public office seat as a Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner in DC, I have access to a computer and email). Along with the fees, I ask them to work out exactly how much they owe so that their knowledge of the equation grows stronger. Then, when I give a talk on the stock market and talk about the S&P 500 Index with a 20% year-to-date return, they have a direct connection and understanding of the concept.

Even our staff members are on board. They write checks or fill out voucher slips that I created to reward residents for good behavior and/or tasks completed. Vouchers can be surrendered during YME Bank opening hours to deposit or withdraw YME money. I have noticed how this collaboration brings back what I call the “dignity of corrections”. From now on, our employees no longer have the impression of being confronted with arduous and tedious work. There is the community. There is a tangible and positive contribution.

And I will say – even as the creator of this monetary system – when I count, when I put money in my pocket and pay people, it reminds me of what it means to be free. So the notion of being a free person is woven into the whole fabric of being in this community.

The concept works – and it can be scaled

I believe your money is your best worker. He never takes a day off, he never calls in sick, he even works on holidays. I want to teach people from disadvantaged communities and prison spaces how to invest that money and in the process, invest in themselves. So they can make their money work, not work for their money.

It started as a pilot project, and now it’s a proven concept that can be scaled – for the individuals inside and the outside. Because no entrance outweighs the re-entry. Currently, for the people on the inside, I have made accumulating gate money — the money you get on release — a top priority in my administration as commissioner. If you came in with bad financial habits, you’ll come out the same way – unless we provide financial knowledge inside. If incarcerated people can accumulate money over time through savings and investment, they will be better equipped to make the transition. Indoor savings like YME ensure that when you get home, you can stay home.

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