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Northern Arizona jail teaches inmates to avoid debt

By Larry Hendricks
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) 9-08

Page resident Mellowdi Yazzie, 30, was caught earlier this year driving with a suspended license following a DUI conviction.

At the time, she had a warrant out for her arrest because she had failed to comply with court-ordered payment of fines. She was sentenced to the Coconino County Jail. She’s the first to admit that her trouble with the law primarily had to do with her inability to manage her finances. She got into debt and didn’t pay her fines.

But that’s changed now. Yazzie, along with other Native female inmates at the jail are learning to save for the future by participating in the county’s Wi$e Up program.

“It helped me refocus on my priorities,” Yazzie said. “I’ve been trying to hide from the credit department for a while. So I needed this class.”

Janetta Beaumont, adult program coordinator for the Coconino County Career Center, said Wi$e Up is about offering “financial literacy” to Generation X women. Through a series of lessons, women are taught how to save for their children’s education and retirement and keep clear of the heavy burden of debt.

The program in Coconino County is designed for Native American women countywide, Beaumont said, but classes at the jail are available for any woman interested in participating. The program is funded by a grant of about $10,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau and is meant to serve about 100 women, Beaumont added.

Why the jail?

Beaumont said that often Native American women are the breadwinners in their families.

“It can stabilize them and keep them from getting back into jail,” Beaumont said.


The program is broken down into a series of lessons meant to get a woman to look at her own timeline of life and look at the big picture to set goals and figure out how to achieve them.

For instance, Beaumont said one of the most important goals for the women in jail is to eventually own their own home.

Among the lessons are:

Money basics: How to make a budget. Start a savings account in order to begin “paying yourself.” 401 K planning. Paying bills and incidentals.

“And then what’s left over is for fun things,” Beaumont said.

Credit: The women are shown how easy it is to get into trouble with credit cards and how credit cards function. The inmates often share stories of credit card horrors, Beaumont said.

Insurance: The women are taught to identify good rates and plans for a variety of insurances.

At the end, the women are shown how to become an investor. They are taught the difference between certificates of deposit and the upside and downside of investing in the stock market.

Beaumont said the inmates often come to deeper understanding of their lives.

“It helps them realize they have to be strong for themselves and their kids, because many of them do have kids,” Beaumont said.

Yazzie, who graduated from the program recently, said she’s a single parent and needs to find financial security for her children instead of living paycheck to paycheck.

As for her debt to the criminal justice system, Yazzie said she is already applying her newly taught principles.

Instead of having her parents bail her out and having to owe them money, she decided to serve out her time. Also, she was accepted as a trustee at the jail, and trustees get two days of jail time for every day they serve. That means she’ll be out of jail in less than two weeks, she said.

And trustees get the chance to attend quilt sewing classes.

“I get the chance to learn to sew, finally,” she said, smiling.

As for her future, she said she hopes to finish her bachelor’s degree and go onto graduate school and study adolescent psychology.

As for the Wi$e Up program, Yazzie said, “Do it. You’ll learn a lot of different ways to manage your money.”