According to the U.S. Department of Justice, each year more than 600,000 people return to our neighborhoods after serving time in federal and state prisons. Another 11 million cycle through local jails. And many people end up cycling right back into prison.
Why? And what is life like upon release?
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia coordinates a program designed to help communities understand that experience, and maybe shed some light on some of the contributing factors to high recidivism rates.
About 50 community members gathered recently in the auditorium of the YWCA in Wheeling to participate in what’s called an Ex-convict Re-entry Simulation.
“Everyone who participates is given the identity of someone who’s just walked out of prison doors, and they have tasks they have to complete, the same as someone in real life would,” said First Assistant United States Attorney and Re-entry Coordinator, Betsy Jividen. She designed this simulation so that community members might have some insight into the realities ex-convicts face.
Participants have to make rounds to tables set around the room. Each table has a label like DMV, probation, court, church, grocery, or pawnshop. The whole experience lasts about an hour.
“Each 15 minute period will represent a week in your life,” Jividen announced in the echoing auditorium. She explains as everyone is handed packets with descriptions of their past history, any cash they might have, personal belongings, and sometimes -- a baby.
Usually there’s no valid form of ID.
You start in your chair, which represents your home. You win the game if, by the end of the hour, you return home. Otherwise you end up at the halfway house, the homeless shelter, or back in prison.
Jane Blalock is a Pro Se Law Clerk for the United States District Court, she handles prisoner complaints and petitions primarily, but this is the first time she’s gone through this simulation.
“My name is Rose,” Blalock said looking at through the packet she was handed, “and I served five years in Federal Prison for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.”
She has $30 to her name; she’s a high school dropout, with a microwave and laptop -- but no form of ID.
“I'm unemployed and living with my significant other and his two children,” Blalock said.
When asked what she has to do first, she becomes overwhelmed.
She must see her probation officer, get counseling and treatment, buy food, pay rent, pay child support, get an ID, get a job, pay a traffic citation, get a urinary analysis, attend AA and NA meetings, and a GED class, and she has to pay a fine to her landlord or face eviction because he found out she has a dog. All that will cost her about 710 dollars.
“It doesn’t look like it’s gonna be easy,” Blalock said.
The game begins. Blalock/Rose decides (as many do) that in order to do anything else, she needs an ID. There are about fourteen people in line, and no time to spare. At the front of the line, she’s handed several forms to fill out and told, once forms are complete, to get back in line.
Time is ticking and the line is growing. The auditorium is bustling with pretend ex-convicts making laps around the room.
It’s not long before Blalock/Rose found herself in a halfway house because she violated her parole. But she didn’t stay there for long.
“That’s it. I’m in jail,” Blalock said almost relieved. She had been caught hanging out with another convicted felon. Often, when on parole, that isn’t allowed.
By the end of the simulation she and two-thirds of the rest of the participants were back in prison. Six people landed in the halfway house; two were in the homeless shelter. Over half of the 60 participants starved for two weeks or more. Two of the four babies were in Child Protective Services, one was relocated, and one died of starvation.
Jividen says these are some of the most true-to-life results they’ve seen.
According to research from the Pew Center on the States, one in four released convicts will return to prison because they violated terms of their release. 10 percent return as a result of a new conviction. For those with mental illness, the rates are even higher.
“The details are definitely there. The pressure obviously isn't because it’s mock. But as far as representing, how things actually go -- it’s pretty accurate,” said Sonny Baxter, an ex-convict who was helping to run the simulation.
Baxter was a federal inmate in West Virginia for three years. Upon release, he found himself in Wheeling with no family support nor any social safety net.
“It was very important for me to find supportive people along the way, who understood my situation -- and actually assisted me in moving forward.”
Today Baxter is an operator at a factory and also Tech Support at Wheeling Jesuit University. He says reality varies for each individual leaving incarcerated life, but upon release, it’s more than just making it to the bank or the grocery store.
“There’s no public transportation here in Wheeling to Moundsville which is where the DMV is,” Baxter explained as an example of one of the local challenges for ex-convicts. “So when you’re in this area, you have to figure out a way get some kind of some kind of transportation in that area to get the ball rolling everywhere else.”
The atmosphere during the simulation was light-hearted, with community members running around in business attire with lanyards and baby dolls. But everyone left realizing that for many people, this it isn’t a game.