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Clipping coupons, saving lives

Clipping coupons is usually associated with soccer moms and extreme stockpilers. But about 50 miles south of Portland, the inmates at Oregon State Correctional Institute have taken it up. They may seem like unlikely couponers, but they’re crazy about it.

“You hear them talking about it around the yard. You hear them talking about it in the units. You hear them talking about it among themselves on the telephones to their people. I mean it's all over the place,” explained Al, an OSCI inmate who’s been in prison for 26 years. “I would say this is definitely a couponing prison.”

Prior to release, OSCI’s inmates are eligible to enroll in the Transitions Road to Success program, a series of courses that teach life skills, including resume writing, money management -- and yes, couponing -- to help them better navigate life after prison and not find themselves back behind bars.

According to a 2011 Pew report, Oregon has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, thanks to an innovative approach to inmates that’s focused on reform, starting with a risk assessment upon arrival to prison and ending with transition planning months before release.

Jeahara, who asked Yahoo not to use her last name because she doesn’t use it in her prison work, has taught the coupon class for three years. A friend invited her along to volunteer one day, and she realized the men could benefit from her 50-plus years of couponing expertise after striking up a conversation with an inmate. He had watched TLC’s "Extreme Couponing" but didn’t understand how it worked.

“[The inmates] get cable TV, so they’ve seen the extreme couponing show. They think that this is fabulous. So we go in there and we teach them the proper way to coupon,” says Jeahara, 60.

Jeahara says the only things she hasn’t figured out to use a coupon for are a car and a house. On the day Yahoo visited, she proudly displayed the shiny new refrigerator she got for free after applying coupons, discounts and good old-fashioned haggling. “And they threw in a five-year warranty!” she says.

Jeahara offers three levels of the coupon course, starting with the basics of using coupons and discount cards. In her advanced classes, she explains how to score bargains on everything from electronics to patio sets.

She says there’s a waiting list of more than 60 inmates to take the class. They’re drawn by the material and the rare occasion to be treated not as an inmate, but as an equal, they say. Jeahara doesn’t ask about her students’ crimes and aims to treat everyone in the room with respect.

To prepare her students for release, she tells them, “If anybody asks where you’re from, just say, ‘Oh, I’ve lived in a gated community.’ And that’s all you have to say because it’s really none of their business. They get really excited about this, because it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Couponing after prison

Curtis, a transitions program graduate, was incarcerated for 17 years and was released about 18  months ago. “I myself kind of had a misconception of couponing. I kind of figured it was something that moms did to save money,” he said.

When he was first released, he found it difficult to find a job and his expenses were tight. Couponing helped him stretch his dollars.

Curtis shares an apartment and couponing duties with Tim, whom he met in prison. Jailed for 15 years, Tim was released in February.

“I know there might be a lot of guys that think couponing is for women but, I’m telling you, it’s like having a second job if you break it down and figure out, ‘OK, I saved X amount of dollars today and I spent X amount of hours doing it.’ Do the math, how much an hour did you just get paid for doing it?” Curtis says.

Tim estimates he saves he saves about $250 a month, money that helps him makes ends meet and pay back the $16,000 he owes in restitution for his crimes. Ex-convicts are also required to pay their parole officers. Many inmates are released from prison only to find themselves confined by a different jailer: debt.  

On a recent trip to the grocery store, Tim saved $38.28 with coupons, and used that money to put gas in his car. “That’s a free tank of gas. So I got the stuff that I needed anyways, and I got a free tank of gas out of it.”

Both men are grateful to Jeahara for sharing her skills with them and other OSCI inmates.

“There are a number of people inside there who, their families turn their backs on them or they didn't have family when they went in,” Curtis says. “When people like Jeahara go in and they’re willing to give of their time and open their hearts like that, it's a very valuable resource and I think that's just something wonderful.”

Jeahara’s gifts to the men don’t end when coupon class is over. Along with her grandson, she started Prep Oregon, a program that gives inmates starter packages of clothes, personal care items and snacks when they're released.

Like all good works, Jeahara finds she gets back as much as she gives. She loves seeing her students succeed outside.

“One of my store managers told me that they know. They can tell my students when they come in because they know the rules. They know the guidelines,” she explained. “They’re polite to the clerks. They’re very helpful. She’s just so pleased to see my students come in.”

For their part, the men feel more prepared to re-enter society because of the transitions program and Jeahara’s lessons.

“I feel less nervous about getting out and trying to survive than if I wouldn’t have [taken] the class. So that's the benefit of this,” says Phil, who has served 26 years in prison.

“One of the reasons I will never teach on the outside is because I feel needed,” Jeahara says. “I feel more safe here than I do actually out on the streets of Portland. It’s just a warm feeling here that I get and just how people take me and respect me for what I do, and they take the couponing seriously.”

For Jeahara, and the men she teaches, the experience is about more than learning to save dollars and cents; they’re learning to save themselves.

Special thanks to the Oregon State Correctional Institute for their generous cooperation with this story. For more information on Jeahara and her grandson’s nonprofit, Prep Oregon, which helps men get back on their feet upon release, check its web site here.