Program simulates life as ex-convict

 

Participants playing the role of released inmates check into desks representing places such as court house, parole board, and other state agencies. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — With a single word, upstanding citizens became ex-convicts — offenders who did prison time for making meth, committing burglary or defrauding others.

At the moderator’s command they were released into society to try to create new lives for themselves. But first, they would have to navigate the complex and confusing process that is re-entry.

For many of them it didn’t go well. By the third week at least a quarter of them were back in jail, committed for offenses ranging from not visiting a probation officer to scalping bus tickets.

Fortunately for many of the reoffenders, this wasn’t real. It was only a simulation designed to illustrate the problems convicts often face upon release from jail.

Held Thursday at Delaware State University by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, state Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, and DSU, the event drew about 85 participants, including state lawmakers, Department of Correction employees and members of community organizations.

It was, for many participating, an eye-opening experience.

“It makes you think maybe they’re not being helped as much as we possibly can help them when they get out of jail and help them navigate the minefields,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said of inmates being released back into the community.

Statistics

The statistics can be staggering. According to a study by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, 71.9 percent of the 3,174 inmates released from state prisons in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were convicted of another crime within three years.

Incarceration rates nationwide began climbing in the late 1970s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics the national rate of individuals who had been sentenced and imprisoned jumped from 0.13 percent in 1978 to 0.46 percent in 1998. It continued climbing until hitting 0.51 percent in 2007 and has since been on the downturn.

As of 2015, 0.46 percent of the U.S. population is sentenced and in a detention facility.

Delaware falls in line with the national trend, climbing from 0.17 percent in 1978 to a high of 0.51 percent in 2001. It now sits at 0.44 percent.

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and Sen. David Lawson volunteered to see hardships and problems inmates go through after they are released from jail (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Those percentages may seem small but in a nation with more than 300 million people, that’s 1.45 million people — about 1.5 times the population of Delaware — who pleaded guilty or were found guilty of a crime and incarcerated in 2015.

Add people awaiting trial and others and there are more than 2.3 million people locked up in the United States.

According to the Delaware Department of Correction about 5,600 people were imprisoned in the state as of June 30, 2016, at a cost of $36,000 per inmate. That means the state, in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, spent about $200 million on prisoners.

Between 1,000 and 1,200 individuals will be released from Delaware detention facilities every year and most of them will struggle to re-establish their lives.

“I accept the fact that there are some people, no matter what social services or other means we provide, are not going to fully take advantage of those opportunities and their minds aren’t right yet,” said David C. Weiss, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware. “… We still have, once you even account for those who aren’t interested, still a significant number of folks who are re-entering our state and looking or at least open to the idea of trying to do something with their lives.”

Ex-inmates often have little to no money and nowhere to live. They must see their probation officers on a regular basis and are frequently tasked with going through counseling, getting treatment for addiction and making restitution.

Simulated re-entry

Thursday’s simulation offered a look at why so many ex-cons reoffend.

The 85 or so participants were each given a new identity of an ex-convict coming out of jail and trying to start over again. This reporter, for instance, became Natasha, a fictitious woman who was imprisoned for four years for Internet fraud.

Unlike many of the ex-criminals, “Natasha” was fortunate: She had state-issued identification, a birth certificate and a bachelor’s degree.

Those who lacked some of the basics such as a driver’s license were given obstacles from the very beginning of their journey.

“It was very easy to see how you can fall behind and end up back in jail,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

The participants were instructed to complete tasks, such as checking in with a probation officer, buying food and finding employment to simulate the life of an ex-inmate. Most were given very limited amounts of money.

The event was broken into four 15-minute sessions, with each session mimicking a week. Tables set up around the room and staffed by volunteers — who had been instructed to not be very helpful — represented the bus station, bank, doctor’s office and other facilities.

It didn’t take long for frustration to become evident.

“The game is rigged,” one man said upon learning he had to buy bus tickets to go anywhere but could not visit the bus station to buy tickets because he didn’t have any tickets to get there.

People who failed to complete tasks were often sent right back to jail. Desperate for money so he could check off his responsibilities, one man attempted unsuccessfully to rob the pawn shop.

To get money, participants were allowed to donate plasma and pawn certain items they were given. The pawn shop, however, did not give players what their goods were valued at, leaving some left feeling cheated.

Participants were often at the mercy of others: Probation officers, bank employees and other volunteers were given power to enforce certain rules when they felt like it. One person, for instance, was required to cough up five bus tickets upon visiting a business, while another had to only hand over two.

Afterward, people spoke of feeling like they were given conflicting directions and were left annoyed and discouraged — which was exactly the point.

“It seems almost better to spend your time in jail,” Rep. Johnson said.

Traci Owens said she learned a lot from the simulation, such as the many roadblocks that often prevent ex-criminals from finding success and leading them right back to crime.

Others had similar thoughts.

“We can talk about the stats, but this, for the first time — I’ll tell you what I thought. It was something that put me in an empathy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Logan said. “I wanted to succeed. I didn’t want to go to jail until I was beaten down again, and then I did.”

The next step

Ex-inmates Brady Muhammad and Sebastian Corbin both spoke about the challenges they faced upon leaving prison. They touted Project New Start, a Claymont-based nonprofit, for helping them get back on their feet.

Mr. Muhammad said he faced challenges in adapting to technology, like smart phones, after spending 13 years behind bars. Both men said they wanted to succeed on the outside and were able to find employment.

But not everyone is so motivated.

“Some people, when they’re in jail, they say ‘I’d rather stay in jail than be on probation,’” Mr. Corbin said. “That’s because they already know they’re not going to make it through probation. So who wants to go home just to come back?”

Reps. Schwartzkopf and Johnson said the program gave them ideas for legislation to smooth the path for inmates coming out of Delaware prisons. Helping provide ID to those that need it would be very helpful, said Rep. Schwartzkopf, whose character in the simulation did not have an identification.

Priscilla Turgon, who has worked with dozens of ex-convicts since starting Project New Start in 2013, said she believes the state can reduce recidivism by providing more resources for individuals going through the criminal justice and correctional systems.

“Re-entry needs to start at sentencing,” she said.

In recent years, Delaware has made several changes designed to help convicts re-integrate themselves into society.

A 2014 bill made it illegal for employers to ask prospective candidates if they have ever been convicted of a crime until after the first interview. Although not directly related to re-entry, a 2016 measure removed financial barriers for some ex-felons to vote by no longer requiring restitution first be paid.

Lawmakers have also sought to reduce the prison population by lowering some mandatory minimums, giving judges more discretion in sentencing and decriminalizing marijuana.

But there’s more that can be done, advocates said.

Re-entry programs, Mr. Muhammad said, need to be like pre-natal care. Much as a substantial effort is made to ensure every baby is born healthy and with a chance for success, officials should prepare inmates for life as free men and women, he told the audience.

“They’re coming out,” he said. “You better believe they’re coming out, so we have a vested interest in the well-being of society so we need to do what we can do to make it easy for these guys.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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