Color of Money Challenge: Soon-to-be-former inmates ready to rebuild their lives

Prisoners who are set for release from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women take part in Michelle Singletary's Color of Money Challenge. She will work with them through the year to develop stronger financial habits as they finish their sentences and then start again to rebuild their lives.
By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stephanie Harris's management and sales skills helped her earn $3,000 for just six or seven hours of work on a "good" day.

Over 10 years, Harris says, she earned about half a million dollars. But her job took away her freedom.

Harris was sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison for selling heroin. Since she was a teen, Harris has been in and out of correctional institutions on various felony counts -- mostly for selling heroin and crack cocaine.

Christine Foote, with her long dusty-brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, looks as though she should be working in an office. And she had been working as an administrative assistant when she was sentenced to 10 years for stealing more than $68,000 from her employer, a Salisbury, Md., roofing company.

Foote and Harris are both about to be released on parole from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. The women have agreed to allow me to work with them to help manage their money. Over the next year, as part of my Color of Money Challenge, I'll be following the decisions these two need to make to strengthen their financial lives and keep them from going to prison again.

In past challenges, I've helped individuals and families get their money straight. Last year, I worked with unemployed individuals. The year before, I helped several military families save and get out of more than $50,000 in debt.

I met the two inmates through the Prosperity Partners Financial Freedom Program. It's a volunteer outreach effort of a financial mentoring program I direct at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

In partnership with several other organizations -- the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and the District of Columbia, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, and Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) -- we visit inmates to review their credit reports and conduct workshops to teach them how to better manage their money or resolve any tax issues they may have.

I have no doubt this year's challenge will be tough. As a five-time convicted felon, Harris will have to trade her lucrative drug-hustling skills for a low-wage street-cleaning job.

Having worked her way up from a "hitter," or the person who hands the drugs to buyers, to an "overseer," Harris said, she managed four people making thousands of dollars a day. She says all the money was spent on clothes, household expenses and stuff she can't even remember.

"To a young person, it's a lifestyle that will intrigue you," she said, sitting in a classroom at the prison. "It was like a real company. I got management experience."

Now she intends to hustle, legally.

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