By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
After being incarcerated for 28 years, Roy Rogers left prison with no credit, making the process of re-entering society even more challenging.
Within two years after being released, however, Rogers has improved his credit significantly, allowing him to continue building a steady and stable life.
Rogers specifically developed a plan for his credit before leaving prison – something for which prisoners need more support and resources, he said.
Risks and hurdles
Recidivism rates are largely driven by economic challenges people face upon returning to their communities, said Doug Ryan, vice president of policy and applied research at Prosperity Now, a national nonprofit, based in Washington D.C.,that advocates for policies to reduce the country’s racial wealth gap.
Rogers knows all about such challenges.
“If you don’t have the basic things you need to succeed, it can put you in a position where you have to make certain choices,” he said. “And sometimes you might not make the correct one. And it starts a spiraling down effect.”
Housing and employment are often cited as two of the most important resources for people to successfully return from incarceration. But good credit is often a prerequisite for both.
“I found out that by me having pretty much a non-existing credit life, that that impacted everything,” said Rogers. “Anything that involved loans. Anything that involved renting. Anything that utilized a credit score as part of its matrix – it was negative for me.”
In Wisconsin, according to publicly available data, the percentage of people who were re-incarcerated within three years of release, between 2000 and 2018, was roughly 40%.
Who is helping?
Rogers is adamant that people should have access to more financial literacy resources and education while they are in custody, particularly in facilities run by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, or DOC.
Kevin Hoffman, DOC’s deputy director of communications, told NNS in an email that there are “limited opportunities” for people who are incarcerated to build their credit.
Hoffman added, however, that the DOC does offer materials and classes on financial literacy.
Some prisoners also have the opportunity to participate in work-release programs, where they can earn money and pay toward their legal obligations or delinquent accounts before their release.
Rogers works as a data solutions processor by day. But he also is a staff member of The Community, a nonprofit that, among other things, has worked to increase the financial literacy of those who have been incarcerated.
Rogers’ experience in building his credit helped inform the content in The Community’s educational packet about financial literacy.
The cornerstone of Rogers’ credit-building strategies has been finding ways to consistently demonstrate financial responsibility.
One key method for doing this, Rogers said, is creating small amounts of debt then paying it off.
“I began to learn how to build credit coming from a deficit. And for me that started out with simply getting a secure credit card,” Rogers said.
“Right now, my credit is decent,” Rogers said. “I fluctuate between 690 and 700.”
(According to Equifax, one of the three largest consumer credit reporting agencies, the general rule of thumb is that a credit score from 580 to 669 is considered “fair;” 670 to 739 is considered “good;” 740 to 799 is considered “very good;” and 800 and up is considered “excellent.”)
If more people had opportunities to learn about credit while they were incarcerated, more people could ultimately use credit as a tool after their release, Rogers said.
These opportunities would “help you level the playing field a little bit. And give you an advantage you would not have without it,” he said.
Resources you should know about
Strategies like demonstrating financial responsibility, and others, are spelled out in The Community’s financial literacy packet, which can be requested for free by emailing email@example.com.
Credit Builders Alliance, or CBA, is a national nonprofit advancing the cause of credit building for people who have historically had no credit or who have bad credit, including people who have been incarcerated.