Prisoners of Debt: the Economics of Recidivism | Guro Sollien Eriksrud | TEDxTrondheim

Prisoners of Debt: the Economics of Recidivism | Guro Sollien Eriksrud | TEDxTrondheim


Translator: Hiroko Kawano
Reviewer: Marleen Laschet I know a lot of scary people. Some of them have done terrible things. They are drug offenders, robbers,
rapists and murderers. But these scary people
are also scared people. And the biggest fear they have
in common is their letterbox. Their letterbox represents a trap
after release from prison. Inmates are supposed to get
a new start after serving their sentence. However, for many inmates, leaving prison is
when the real punishment begins. The Red Cross Project,
‘Network After Imprisonment’ has almost 14 years of experience with serial offenders
who dream of a normal life. Almost all of them have debt. It’s about unpaid rent,
electricity bills, credit cards, fines… the whole list. The Danish researcher
Annette Olesen has proven that debt problems increase
the danger for relapse. In a survey we conducted,
inmates actually rated economy on top of their list of worries
regarding release. Other researchers have proven
a close correlation between debt problems
and serious mental problems. The worst thing is that inmates who are
really trying to get their lives on track are the ones who get hit the hardest. Take Robbie, a typical inmate. He had a difficult childhood, has no education, no valuable assets
and a lot of debt. His network consists of drug abusers. Robbie has done a lot of thinking
during his last sentence. He is determined that
this is going to be his last time serving. He is offered substance abuse treatment and several courses
and programmes in prison. When released, he receives help
to find a place to live. Robbie is lonely
but he stays away from drugs. It’s very hard to get a job for a man
with a criminal record and no CV. But finally, he lands a job,
and he is doing well. His sister is so happy for him. But then the past catches up with him. The creditors discover
the change in income and start bombarding
Robbie’s letterbox. It fills up with letters
containing legal paragraphs and threats of economic sanctions. They are very difficult to understand. But one thing does sink in quickly: He will never be able to make
this amount of money by legal means. Never. Robbie doesn’t know what to do, so he throws the letters away
and tries to forget about them. That’s a perfectly normal, human reaction. But then payroll deduction is imposed,
and he can no longer pay the rent. Robbie’s head is spinning day and night. ‘There’s no point in working. I’ll never be able to live
a normal life anyway’. After a period with an extremely
high stress level, he has no hope left. And people without hope make bad choices. Robbie consults his old friends
and tries to escape by taking drugs. He doesn’t show up at work anymore,
and his sister can’t reach him. It doesn’t take long
until he is back in prison. Robbie was well on his way. But one important element was
missing in the help he got, and out of control, debt ruined all the efforts made
to get his life on track. Now let’s have a look at Peter. When I first met him,
he was apparently doing just fine: he was clean, he was doing well
in a job-training programme, and was an engaged father. He had been in and out
of prison for 15 years, but decided to stop this vicious circle
when his girlfriend got pregnant. He had to succeed this time. But Peter carried a heavy burden. His debt problems made him sleepless, and he was worried
his normal family life couldn’t last. Why should we care about this? Why can’t offenders solve
their economic problems themselves? There are several reasons for that. Prisoners are not allowed to work so they have nothing
to offer their creditors. They don’t have access
to the internet or phone. Solving a serious debt problem
is complicated. And most inmates
have very little schooling, and strive with difficulties in reading,
writing and concentration. Debt problems affect
the debtor’s mental health. Almost anyone in this situation
would need help. The interest rates increase while serving. When you are supposed to get a new start,
your problem has grown bigger. And it’s hardly easier to solve
this problem outside the prison walls. You know, a criminal environment
is the parallel world. Many offenders are experts on things
we don’t know anything about, and they are scared to death
of things we take for granted. As a friend of mine puts it: ‘I knew the value of 300 grams of gold,
but not the price of a bottle of milk’. The tattooed muscleman may scare you. But he may prefer to make a deal
with a guy like himself rather than receiving letters
he doesn’t understand, containing demands he can never meet. In other words, many offenders start
an economic life sentence after release. Anybody here is afraid of spiders? Imagine being forced
into a room full of them, and you can’t even see the way out. What would be your dearest wish? Somebody to take your hand
and guide you out, maybe? To most offenders, dealing with economics
is a room full of spiders. But they may find the way out
if they are given a helping hand. They will still need to walk that scary
and difficult path themselves. But with guidance and advice, they will feel safer, get new knowledge. They will learn to recognise
the poisonous spiders and avoid them, develop skills to face the others. This was the thought
underlying the ‘Debt Project’ started by Network
After Imprisonment in 2012. And Peter was actually
one of the reasons why we started it. And luckily, it didn’t take too long until we had an agreement
with his creditors, which was positive for both parties. They got payments for the first time ever, and agreed to delete the rest of the debt
after five years of payments. The bombardment
of Peter’s letterbox stopped, and he could see a light
at the end of the tunnel, and focus on his work and his family. Thanks to many volunteers and partners, along with cooperation
from the correctional service, we can offer long-term help
to both inmates and the released. We inform about the public support system
and attend meetings. We give lessons about
everyday economy and debt handling. And the participants are offered
individual advice and help to negotiate and make repayment deals. Our volunteers are well aware that this challenge includes
more than dealing with numbers. They have to win the debtors’ trust,
help them to overcome shame, and at the same time, be honest
about what is expected from them. We also give lessons
to employees and employees-to-be in the correctional system. And I’m so glad that so many
of them want to engage. We have made a book, a film,
two brochures and a website explaining how debt collection is done, how to get an overview
and how to deal with it. This material is spread
to correctional services all over Norway. This is a very small investment
with a potentially very high return. Peter was lucky. He was released exactly when
we started engaging with this topic. And we were lucky to be able
to follow him on his new path. He did most of the work himself and developed many useful skills
and new attitudes on the way. I remember he once showed up with a brand new
toy remote control helicopter, and at the same time,
he was unable to pay the rent. Now he knows where to buy
the cheapest diapers. But the drug offender, the robber,
the rapist, the murderer – do they deserve help? For a Red Cross worker,
the obvious answer is that people deserve a second chance
once their sentence is served. Most inmates aren’t dangerous. Prisons around the world
are full of resourceful people with good intentions and families
and friends who love them. Most of them are facing
many serious challenges, and economy is probably
the most concrete problem to deal with. Professor Arne Holte
from the University of Oslo is clear: Debt counselling is a very effective way to reduce mental problems
and costs related to it. Olesen’s research
and our experience show that debt counselling
has a positive effect on offenders’ chances
to stay away from drugs and crime. This leads us to the Network
After Imprisonment’s vision: The correctional service should be
obliged to provide information and courses in everyday economy
and debt handling. Motivated inmates
who serve more than six months should have the right to receive help
in getting a debt overview and a plan for their next chapter. Serving a prison sentence is hard, but it is also an opportunity
to learn useful skills, to prepare for life after release. We need structured and tight cooperation between the correctional service,
the support system and voluntary organisations outside. Maybe not everyone agrees
that offenders deserve help. Haven’t they done terrible things
and hurt people? Haven’t they cost society
enough money as it is? Well, let’s look at it from a tax payer’s
and a concerned citizen’s point of view. Nobody likes wasting tax money. And we would all like to feel safe
in our neighbourhoods, right? Crime costs the tiny,
low-crime country Norway 100 billion Norwegian kroner each year. That is three times more than is spent on development and research
in the state budget, more than seven times
the amount spent on culture. According to the analysis bureau Vista, we could save around 1 million a year
for each typical inmate who becomes a taxpayer instead. Peter has been working as a truck driver
for many years now. Each year he pays
150,000 kroner in taxes. Training prison staff and only, for example,
10,000 kroner in extra resources for each motivated inmate
is money very well spent. 10,000 kroner is less than the cost
of five nights in prison. Peter has spent more than
2000 nights alone in a cell. Now he spends his time
and energy at work, with his family and attending sports contests. He has three kids now, aged 10, 8 and 3. They are growing up in safety. Their father doesn’t sell drugs
in your neighbourhood anymore. Instead, he invites
his neighbours to barbecues. Prisons around the world
are full of Peters. They dream of a normal life. They need to be able to step out
their doors, to their letterboxes, without the anxiety of their past
hanging over them, ruining their new goal. They deserve to succeed. Their kids deserve for them to succeed. We all deserve for them to succeed. So, let’s guide them
out of that spider room. Thank you. (Applause)

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