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The financial lessons you learn in prison

File photo dated 07/11/03 of a prison cell as almost 20,000 prisoners were kept in overcrowded cells last year, figures obtained by a charity have revealed.

Shaun Attwood is a former stockbroker who has spent almost six years serving time in some of Arizona’s most violent jails.

While earning a legitimate fortune as a stock broker in the USA, this Widnes-born Brit also ran a vast drugs ring and was responsible for dealing tens of millions of dollars-worth of ecstasy. Attwood was arrested, lost everything and spent years in one of the most notoriously tough prison systems in the western world.

Since then, he leads a reformed life, spending his days talking to school groups about the dangers of drugs. He’s written a trilogy of books about his time in prison and a self-help book.

He’s clearly learned his lesson about a life of crime. With his stock broker background, we decided to ask what money lessons he learned in prison. Here’s what he had to say.


Never borrow what you can’t repay

So much financial hardship is caused by people taking on bigger debts than they can manage. However, in a US jail you risk more than losing your home; you could lose your life. Shaun saw men brutally murdered over unpaid debts.

He explains: “Working as a stockbroker in the nineties, I saw companies swimming in debt such as Enron get wiped out. In prison, debt is equally deadly. Half of the violence I saw revolved around debts; in a world where the majority are injecting heroin and crystal meth, more prisoners die over drug debts than for any other reason.”

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. That’s a financial lesson that money writers repeat a lot, especially when warning about scams.

However, within the prison economy that is even more important. Inexperienced inmates were sometimes forced into doing things because they had accepted ‘gifts’ from predators and had no way to repay them.

Find a niche

In Arizona jails there are few legitimate ways to earn money, but there was a thriving black market. Shaun describes a former cellmate (and serial violent burglar), Bud, who turned their cell into an illegal tattoo shop: “He made a tattoo gun from a piece of guitar string inside the outer casing of a pen with a needle on one end and the motor from a Walkman on the other. His customers paid him with items purchased from the inmate store or with heroin and crystal meth.

“Other prisoners offered laundry, tailoring and massage services. Some drew portraits based on photographs of loved ones and made roses out of toilet paper to give to female visitors.”

Clearly, illegal work for illegal pay isn’t the best financial model to follow. However, it does show the value of finding a niche and showing some initiative. That’s a lesson Shaun’s had to learn the hard way since returning to the UK, as he is virtually unemployable because of his past.

Don’t be swayed by short-term gain

It can be very tempting to chase swift profit, but the steady money is often made by making sensible, long-term investments. That’s been a particularly painful lesson for Shaun.

Had he spent his time in the US working at his stockbroking career, he could have been hugely wealthy without breaking the law at all – he had enjoyed considerable success on the trading floor.

Shaun admits: “My decision to deal ecstasy cost me everything. I could easily be worth about $10 million now if I hadn’t gone down that road.”

Don’t give more than you can afford

There are so many non-essential demands on people’s incomes, whether it’s a friend who needs a loan or a charity appeal you want to donate to. But it’s important to keep affordability in mind; many financial advisers suggest setting a charity budget and not going over it.

Shaun had been a generous man on the outside, sharing his luxury lifestyle and ill-gotten gains with his friends. However, once in prison that was unsustainable.

A man known as Two Tonys, a Mafia murderer serving 112 years, told him: “In here, the strong prey on the weak and the smart take from the strong… Never let people in here know what you’ve got and don’t be giving your commissary away to all of the beggars because they’ll be lined up at your cell door, taking everything you have.”

Hide your valuables

This is a lesson insurers are constantly reinforcing; don’t leave presents under the tree at Christmas, don’t leave your handbag on your car seat, don’t leave the keys to your expensive car by the back door. Don’t give opportunists a chance.

But in American prisons, hiding valuables is a lesson that’s reinforced by repeated confiscations and cell searches. Shaun explains: “Prison cells can be searched at any time. Guards wearing rubber gloves perform ‘shakedowns’ where they ransack cells, confiscating anything under the broad classification of contraband… Inmates aware of an impending shakedown sometimes hide their contraband in the library or bury it on the recreation field.”

Have an emergency fund

Whatever your financial commitments, saving an emergency fund is important. Shaun thought he had done so, but the police seized it all when he was arrested.

Desperate for decent legal representation and facing a possible life sentence, he had to beg his parents to help. They paid almost $100,000 in legal costs, highlighting the importance of having money stashed for the unexpected.

You cannot plan for everything life will throw at you and having a financial safety net is essential. As Shaun rebuilds his life, he remains dedicated to repaying his parents for their financial support.

Adversity can be opportunity

When Shaun finally returned to the UK, he could easily have dropped out of society. He was unemployable as a result of his prison sentence – one reason why many prisoners fall back into crime when they are released.

However, Shaun looked for the opportunity in his experiences and now earns his living by giving cautionary talks to schools and colleges (you can see an example of his talks on YouTube). He has also published a hard-hitting trilogy – Party Time, Hard Time and Prison Time – which is available on Amazon, while his self-help book, Lessons from a Drug Lord was recently published too.

What do you think? Do Shaun’s financial lessons from prison chime with you? Have your say in the comments below.

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