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A reentry simulation program shows reality of life after prison

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Every day, thousands of people are released from prison. Oftentimes, they’re set up to fail. In Alabama, a group of students and professors participated in a reentry simulation hosted by the Justice Department, an effort to increase empathy for people leaving prison. From member station WBHM, here’s Mary Scott Hodgin.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: In the real world, Trionne Carmichael works at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she's studying social work. But today, Carmichael is walking in the shoes of a man named Wessel (ph).

TRIONNE CARMICHAEL: Been in prison, in federal prison, for 10 years.

HODGIN: Carmichael is one of about 100 people participating in the simulation. The group is gathered in a large gym at the university's recreation center.

Do you know anything about the reentry process?

CARMICHAEL: No, ma'am. No. That's why I was like, let me see how hard it is or how difficult it is, to see what they actually go through.

HODGIN: That's the idea behind the activity. Participants take on the persona of someone leaving prison. They get a list of tasks to complete at stations around the gym - check in at the probation office, pay fines at the courthouse, visit the employment office. One station is especially popular.

Excuse me. What is this line for?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: State ID.

HODGIN: You think you're going to make it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, absolutely not.

HODGIN: As another participant puts it, the line for an ID is a million years long. And those who make it through the line better be prepared to pay transportation costs plus a fee. People start the game with little to no money. They scramble to get the right documents, find work and cash a check. At one point, Trionne Carmichael is told she owes $75 on an outstanding warrant.

Was this unexpected?

CARMICHAEL: Very much so. I finally found how to get some money. I was supposed to get some every week, but it is horrible out here. Horrible.

HODGIN: Things don't get much better from there.

CARMICHAEL: Don't know whether or not I need to go get some food before I pass out or go get my paycheck. I haven't paid child support. I haven't paid rent.

HODGIN: It's a predicament for lots of people leaving prison. Nationwide, some states offer more reentry services than others. In Alabama, services are extremely limited, says Jeremy Sherer.

JEREMY SHERER: We simply just don't make use of the time that we have people incarcerated, and so they don't have a plan when they come out.

HODGIN: Sherer is an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama. His office is one of many across the country that organize these reentry simulations. Sherer has conducted the activity with all kinds of people, including correctional officers and judges. He says it highlights ways to improve the system. Like in Alabama, officials could better prepare people in prison with more education and job training.

SHERER: The best practice model in reentry is reentry begins on Day 1.

HODGIN: Alabama prison officials say reentry is a priority. But in recent years, their main focus has been funding new prison construction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible).

HODGIN: As the event winds down, Tim Lanier addresses the group.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want to thank you all for making me feel good today. I liked putting y'all in jail. That was good.

(LAUGHTER)

HODGIN: Lanier is one of several formerly incarcerated people helping run the simulation. He says, all fun aside, the activity is just a glimpse at how stressful reentry can be.

TIM LANIER: I really like the frustration I saw on the faces of the people that saw that they couldn't get things done. You know, just imagine that. Just imagine getting out of prison after being in there over 15, 16, 18, 20 years. They give you $10 on the bus, take you to come home.

HODGIN: For participants like Trionne Carmichael, just an hour of the simulation is enough.

CARMICHAEL: I'm tired. I'm just saying, forget it. I'll go to jail myself.

HODGIN: She says there's got to be a better way.

CARMICHAEL: Because basically, you set them up for failure. They're going back to prison. And they have no help.

HODGIN: Carmichael is finishing up her social work degree. She says in the future, she may work with formerly incarcerated people and hopefully make the process a little easier.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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