Reintegrating after incarceration: Lessons from a re-entry simulation

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By Tyson Smith, Teagan Kuruna, and Dawn Wiest

People leaving jails and prisons face an overwhelming set of requirements as they rejoin their communities: drug tests, parole and probation meetings, physical and mental health appointments, addiction treatment services, and more, all while trying to scrape together enough money to care for themselves and their families. At the Camden Coalition, we help people navigate this labyrinth of expectations through our Camden RESET (Re-Entering Society with Effective Tools) program, a pilot intervention designed to improve health and wellbeing, promote successful community reintegration, and reduce participants’ criminal justice involvement.

National and state attention is turning toward the need for improved care and service coordination for people leaving correctional facilities. Locally, the South Jersey Community Reentry Coalition educates the public about the vital role community members play in the success of people leaving jail or prison. On June 4, four Camden Coalition staff members attended the South Jersey Community Reentry Coalition’s re-entry simulation, an event designed to bring awareness to the obstacles faced by people re-entering society after incarceration.

The simulation took place at Rutgers University, Camden campus and was attended by roughly 125 people. The event was co-sponsored by the Camden County Reentry Committee, which includes the Camden Coalition and several of our partner organizations — the Camden County Department of Corrections, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, Oaks Integrated Care, and the Center for Family Services. Rutgers University, Camden campus and the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Delaware were also co-sponsors.

How the re-entry simulation works

During the simulation, participants assumed the life of a person just released from a correctional facility and performed tasks for four 15-minute sessions, each session representing a week. Participants encountered challenges faced by many people re-entering the community as they try to complete their court-ordered obligations and maintain their day-to-day life.

Participants were given a name, money, bus tickets, property to pawn such as a television or jewelry, and a set of required tasks like having a drug test, paying child support, paying rent, paying restitution (payment made by the perpetrator of a crime to the victims of that crime), getting a state ID card, or receiving counseling services. Notably, these requirements changed during each “week” of the four-week period that the simulation covered.

Stations set up around the perimeter of the room represented the resources, agencies, and obligations that participants needed to engage to avoid being re-arrested. These included social services, ID card services, housing rental offices, a bus ticket kiosk, a plasma center, a drug testing center, a church, and a bank. Warden Karen Taylor, Lt Clifford Kareem, and Officer Alfred Carr of the Camden County Department of Corrections were among the volunteers who played roles in the simulation.

What we learned about re-entry through the simulation

Our experience of the simulation reinforced the importance of service coordination and navigation for people leaving correctional facilities. This was especially true for people with chronic illness, social vulnerabilities, or behavioral health challenges—such as the individuals enrolled in RESET and our care management intervention. Camden Coalition staff who participated in the event offered the following insights:

“One of the most frustrating things was how many appointments I had to meet in order to stay out of jail. I couldn’t even get around to looking for a job or getting food because I was trying to make it to treatment, drug testing, and parole appointments. Soon, I saw that sitting in jail was much less stressful than trying to make all my appointments, and I quit trying to get out. Not to mention, I hadn’t eaten in two weeks while outside of jail, and in jail, I got served food daily.”

-Whitney Buchmann, Senior Program Manager for Legal & External Affairs

“I didn’t realize how important transportation was, and even though I started out with the best intentions, I was always behind schedule because I couldn’t get where I needed to go. The fact that there were more people who returned to jail than those who successfully navigated the system was staggering.”

– Tawanna Roane, LPN Care Coordinator for Community Operations

“The simulation emphasized that staying out of jail or prison after release requires everything to go just right, and that despite how hard you might work to just keep afloat, meeting all of one’s obligations, you might end up right back where you started. It was clear to me that the simulation was about getting us to [see that it is] difficult to just break even.”

-Tyler Yost, Data Scientist for Analytics and Informatics

The importance of testing new strategies to improve re-entry

The simulation was highly effective at representing a very complicated and uncoordinated system. It was easy to feel frustrated, lost, and disempowered. As participants tried to individually navigate the system, there was no obvious sequence to what they needed to do. It felt chaotic and never-ending as they popped in-and-out of different agencies and offices.

These experiences affirmed what clinicians working on RESET — and people who have been released — knew: re-entry is arduous and often confusing, especially for people who have few resources and already contend with high levels of stress. Ensuring that people leaving correctional facilities have strong connections to the services and care they need is a key factor in whether they are rearrested. Pilot programs like RESET are crucial for understanding how to support individuals who navigate a complicated, fragmented system while trying to meet basic needs and pursue their own health and personal goals.

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