Reentry simulation shines a light on post-incarceration challenges

Tim Dodderidge, Public Information Office

A woman in a pink sweatshirt speaks to two women at a table labeled "Rent & Utilities/Transportation

Reentering society after incarceration can create several challenges, from getting a job to obtaining transportation to affording rent and food. A recent simulation offered me a hands-on experience of what these challenges are like for individuals following jailtime.

The workshop, held on Tuesday, April 19 at the Johnson County Administration Building, put participants in the shoes of people reentering society.

During the workshop, which simulated a month of reentry, I was assigned a character to play. In this case, I played a formerly incarcerated person named Walt, who had served 10 years in prison for armed robbery and struggled with drug addiction.

A glimpse at reentry barriers and struggles

Over the hour of the simulation, I learned the challenges of navigating social service agencies, transportation needs, employment, housing and more. This included tasks like getting an ID card, working a full-time or part-time job, paying child support, receiving drug treatment and checking in with a probation officer.

Often, there were hurdles to accomplishing these tasks – whether it was time constraints, financial limitations or drug relapses. In Walt’s case, he was fortunate to already have an ID and social security card and a full-time job to supply him with a steady income.

It took time to get Walt back on his feet, but it didn’t come without tough choices: Do I run to the bank to deposit my paycheck, or do I attend a mandatory AA meeting? Still, Walt remained just one missed child support payment or failed drug test away from returning to jail.

Other participants were not so lucky. One individual kept getting turned down for jobs due to his criminal record, eventually going to a homeless shelter just to have a place to stay. Another tried to donate plasma to make ends meet, only to be turned away due to a recent piercing.

The workshop highlighted the difficulty of navigating the “system,” which features barriers that can keep people reentering society from being  successful. Often, these barriers can bring feelings of helplessness and decreased self-efficacy.

Addressing the challenges to reenter society

Ninety-five percent of the more than 1.5 million incarcerated people in the United States will eventually return to society. In Johnson County, this includes 12,000 people released from county jail each year. However, the challenges prove difficult for those looking to put their mistakes behind them, as nearly 65% will return to prison within three years of their release.

Recidivism affects not only those seeking to re-enter society, but also their family members, a well as taxpayers and community resources burdened by additional re-entry attempts.

The reentry simulation highlighted just how difficult it is to avoid recidivism, even when doing everything you can to overcome your past mistakes. One small slip-up or instance of bad luck, and Walt could very well have been part of that 65%.

Johnson County Government is making its own strides to help individuals integrate back into society, as it’s clear how challenging it is to do so. The county’s work includes these initiatives:

The work to support individuals post-incarceration continues. But this simulation is a reminder that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes gives you the compassion to effectively serve your community – especially those striving to successfully reenter this community.

Department of Corrections
Mental Health