CHIPPEWA FALLS — Darrin Cowser, an inmate at Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility, is set to be released from prison in November. But first, Cowser is busy preparing himself for life outside prison walls. That includes taking a financial literacy program, offered by the prison and RCU.
“It gave me the basics of understanding budgeting,” Cowser said Wednesday. “There are a bunch of things I want to do, but I don’t have the credit to do it. This is a start. The teacher gave it to us in easy terms.”
Cowser, 32, of Milwaukee, said the course taught him everything from the importance of reading the fine print in terms of agreements, to understanding the difference between a bank and a credit union.
CVCTF showed off its banking literacy program on Wednesday, with Kevin Carr, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, and Kathy Blumenfeld, secretary of the state Department of Financial Institutions, in attendance.
Cooper Larson, an RCU banker who works at the corporate center in Eau Claire, taught her class to a group of nine inmates, as they went over financial paperwork. Larson teaches the roughly 90-minute class every week.
“It is, hands-down, the best part of my job,” Larson said, warning that she might start to tear up as she talked about the importance of the class. “To get to spend time with individuals, and set them up with a chance of success, means so much to me.”
The inmates were attentive and asked plenty of questions.
“They sign up for this class, and there is a waiting list,” Larson said. “We keep the class small so there is a good engagement.”
Blumenfeld was impressed with what she saw.
“I think it’s an amazing public-private partnership, where RCU saw the need for providing financial literacy,” Blumenfeld said. “From all accounts, it has been super-effective in providing a pathway to financial success.”
Carr agreed, saying the program is vital to inmates who are about to be released.
“A part of the mission of the DOC is for people to change their lives for the better,” Carr said. “Financial literacy is critical to their success.”
CVCTF warden Tim Nelson was pleased to host the state secretaries.
“We’re ecstatic,” Nelson said. “We really think this is a great partnership with RCU.”
RCU started the financial literacy program in 2015 in the Eau Claire County jail, and they expanded it to the prison in 2019. They also offer the program in the Dunn and Barron county jails.
The prison, located at 2909 E. Park Ave. in the southeast corner of Chippewa Falls, used to be part of the Northern Center. At capacity, the prison houses 505 inmates, but Nelson said they are currently at 414, down in numbers largely because of COVID-19 safety measures.
The four-story complex was remodeled in 2003, and it began housing inmates in April 2004. The facility was originally pitched as a “geriatric prison” for elderly inmates, but during the planning process, it was switched to housing inmates in need of drug and alcohol treatment programs in the final months before their release. Inmates are typically allowed to work outside the prison, with supervision, for non-profit organizations in the community. For instance, a group of inmates has been setting up the Christmas Village lights last week in Irvine Park.