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Behind the walls

Anglicare supports inmates to get their finances in order – giving them a better chance to avoid future convictions.

Financial counsellor Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie goes to prison every week.

He’s a financial counsellor with Anglicare and helps inmates with money matters.

“Once a person enters the prison system they have five phone numbers they can call. These are usually reserved for family and their lawyer,” said Ross. “Inmates don’t have access to the internet.  They only way they have of contacting the outside world is by letter. It’s very restricted and that’s a disadvantage when it comes to managing their finances”.

Ross said many inmates felt powerless and frustrated, particularly if family members ‘outside’ were struggling to pay bills. “In some respects it is the family that does it tougher financially during the term of imprisonment,” he said. “The prisoner is catered for in terms of their primary needs of life. Part of my job is to be in regular touch with family members to make sure they’re aware of their options”.

However, Tasmanians who serve time often have debts which, if left unpaid, can grow to unmanageable levels due to interest, fees and fines. Ross works with inmates to identify existing debts which may include credit card loans, car finance, telephone and electricity bills. “Some people are quite stressed, knowing that these debts exist but that they haven’t set up a way to make repayments,” he said. “With any debt, staying in touch with creditors is crucial,” he said. “As long as there is contact with the creditor you can usually achieve a lot – and that’s where I can help. It’s when contact is lost that the creditor can default to legal measures to recover the debt”.

Outstanding fines are another serious financial hurdle for prisoners. Ross said it was fairly typical for a prisoner to have unpaid fines of $5000-6000. “The Monetary Penalties Enforcement Service is good at accepting what is an affordable and realistic payment from people,” said Ross. “Unfortunately some of these debts are so large that there’s little likelihood people will be able to pay it off in their lifetime”.

Ross said few prisoners had their financial paperwork with them. “I’m often working with vague information and scant details,” he said. “You have to be a bit of a detective”.

He said some prisoners had not put in a tax return for years and had lost track of their superannuation. “I do what I can to help them to get their finances in order. Some people have had tax refunds they didn’t know about. Some have found out they have reasonable super balances they weren’t aware of”.

Inside the Risdon Prison complex, inmates sometimes have the opportunity to work at jobs in the kitchen and laundry. “A prisoner can earn about $45 a week which they are able to use to purchase toiletries and pay for phone calls,” he said. “Some people arrange to send money to family or creditors”.

Inside the prison, many inmates refer others to Anglicare’s financial counselling service. “Some people become real ambassadors for the service,” said Ross. “We get direct requests from prisoners, as well as from family members. We see inmates who are coming up to their release date and want to put a plan in place. We’re also aiming to see more people when they first enter the prison system. For most financial issues, it’s better to address them early on”.

Ross said there was value in supporting prisoners. “A young man I spoke to recently has spent only 18 months out of prison since he left school,” he said. “Inmates often tell me they feel they are being set up for failure, that there’s nothing they can do to change things”.

“To me, that is a call for a help. There are prisoners who can’t see a way out of their circumstances, who just don’t know where to start,” he said. “As a community, we can respond to that.  We don’t want people who get out of prison ending up back there because of unpaid fines or for stealing because they didn’t have enough money to pay for accommodation and food”.

Ross said many of the inmates he’d worked with at Risdon continued to see him post-release. “A lot of them want to finish off the work they were doing while in prison,” he said. “That’s a hopeful sign”.

“Anglicare’s financial counselling service is one small way of letting people know that there is support available to them. The assistance we give to inmates flows on to their families. And maybe most importantly, it lets people understand that when they’ve left the prison system, there will be help for them outside too. It might be the first time they’ve ever experienced that”.

 

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