Jail release simulation exercise illustrates obstacles to reentering the community

It’s not easy to make better choices.

Participants in a recent simulation exercise in Traverse City had a chance to experience for themselves some of the obstacles facing prisoners released from jail, by walking in their shoes as they navigate return to community life.

“Returning to life beyond incarceration is difficult," says Jeanne Marriott, 
project associate for the Michigan Center for Rural Health’s Northern Michigan Opioid Response Consortium, one of the event sponsors. The other two sponsors were Before, During and After Incarceration and Networks Northwest.

Marriott says being released from incarceration means a lot of change, coming on fast, from managing the practical — dictates of probation, finding transportation or a job — to the emotional demands of freedom itself.

Inside, an incarcerated individual makes about 200 decisions per day, Marriott says. Upon release, that number explodes to some 35,000 decisions every day.

“There is an overload of stimuli that can be overwhelming and lead to recidivism,” Marriott says. “I think that is a huge obstacle.”

How does a simulation exercise work: To help those who work with the incarcerated community understand these challenges, this event, one of the first of its kind, invites representatives of law enforcement, county commissioners, and other professionals to experience what the first month of freedom can be like for former inmates. Each participant in the simulation receives a “bio sketch” and a “life card” that provide an identity and the situation they must assume. 

The bio sketch includes details of the character’s history, what they have accumulated that they can take with them from incarceration, and the living arrangements they will assume. The life card includes the weekly tasks they must complete to stay in compliance with the terms of release — a snapshot of what they need to do each week to complete the simulation.

Task assignments might include acquiring ID cards, finding transportation, securing housing or getting a job. Each participant’s simulated life varies, depending on the support they have on the outside.
“Weeks” of the simulation are run in 15-minute increments, with a discussion session of about 10 minutes in between each.

Volunteers man booths and tables representing ‘locations’ the participants might have to visit, such as: a career center, general education, church, court, medical center and employer.

Some participant scenarios include having a job either part-time or full time that would require the person to report there first and stay seven of the 15 minutes for full-time, three minutes for part-time. 'Employed' participants receive a ‘paycheck’ at the end of their ‘week.'

Stumbling blocks include chance ‘action cards’ that could interfere with completion of the task. For example, at the plasma station one person might get a card that says: “You got a piercing, so you cannot donate,” another might get lucky and get a “successful donation” card, worth a $25 voucher.

Other stops with action cards include probation, quick loan and pawn shop, social services, super center, bank, treatment and counseling.
The outcome: The event was well received by the 50 participants and 25 volunteer, and remarks were overwhelmingly positive. Some of the comments included: “I feel the tension that is real life; “It Illustrated just how many obstacles there are to success,” and “This was a very eye-opening experience!”

The hope, Marriott says, is that participants working the simulation will identify barriers and figure out how to circumvent or eliminate them for those actually faced with the struggle. She says county and state efforts are beginning initiatives to provide more training and educational opportunities to help people better adjust to release. Some institutions are hiring navigators to help inmates identify gaps and proactively find solutions before release.  These sorts of programs and resources vary greatly from community to community, she says.  

The back story: This event is modeled after a similar simulation being done by the West Virginia Department of Justice. Northern Michigan Opioid Response Consortium received grants through a multi-year initiative called Rural Communities Opioid Response Program by the Health Resources and Services Administration. The aim of the federal grant funding is to reduce the morbidity and mortality of substance use and opioid use disorder.

Marriott says there is a high incidence of substance abuse and opioid use associated with incarcerated people, and many overdoses occur as people are released and return to use, especially if they do not modulate their use after having been without it for a significant amount of time. For that reason, jail release is a focus to help keep communities and community members safe.  

What’s next: Ideally, this effort in Grand Traverse County will spark more interest across the state for these types of simulations to take place, Marriott says.  

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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