By Rachel Crumpler
For an hour last week, I was a high school dropout who served four years in prison for internet fraud.
I was released from prison with $50 in cash, two things I could pawn and five transportation tickets. I had no forms of identification and no job. I would stay with my significant other and his two kids.
I assumed this mock identity while participating in a simulated exercise in Warren County, along with about 30 other community members. The simulation, structured in four 15-minute increments, represents one month in the life of someone recently released from incarceration.
The purpose of the exercise is to illustrate the magnitude of the challenges that people released from prison or jail encounter in the community.
“It’s impactful because it involves the community,” said Sharon Thomas, reentry lead at the Kerr-Tar Workforce Development Board, who helped lead the event, which was attended by people affiliated with county government, the local school board, community college, senior center and other organizations.
“The community is where they have to come back to, so the community is the mindset that has to change — starting with employers, neighbors, individuals,” Thomas said.
It was a striking experience, and it deepened my understanding of the barriers faced by more than 22,000 individuals released from North Carolina’s state prisons and jails each year. Other participants expressed the same thing.
“I’m guilty of being one of those people who think, ‘Why are they going back to jail?’” one participant said. “But you could see today the mental frustration and the lack of help — that it could be real easy to say, ‘Well, I can go there and get three meals and a cot.’”
To start the simulation, organizers handed out a manila envelope to each participant. Inside were our temporary identities as either someone leaving incarceration or as a worker at one of the various tables around the room that newly released people would encounter as they moved through tasks necessary to get their feet on the ground back in the community.
The tables included social services, employment, court, medical care, grocery store, pawn shop and church, with participants using a transportation ticket to reach each location.
Organizers gave little instruction about where to start our reentry journey.
I immediately felt frazzled seeing the list of tasks I was expected to complete with my limited resources. In just the first week, I needed to obtain my Social Security card, birth certificate and state ID. Also on my list was to pay $15 for treatment, $25 for food and $5 for a urine test.
Before the simulation began, I felt flustered, yet hopeful that I could accomplish my assigned tasks in the 15 minutes allotted for each week — that I would experience a successful reentry.
From my conversations with reentry workers and formerly incarcerated people, I knew it was essential for me to obtain my Social Security card, birth certificate and state ID at the beginning, because I would need those documents to complete other tasks. The ID station was my first stop, as it was for most people in the group — missing needed documents is a common predicament for people released from incarceration.
The two workers at the ID station, also simulation participants, had instructions of what they could and couldn’t help people with. I saw people before me in line successfully obtain ID forms to fill out and thought my experience would also go smoothly.
I was wrong.
They told me they could not help me and suggested I go see my probation officer. My probation officer immediately asked for my forms of ID and sent me away when I had none to show. Then I went to social services for assistance, but the worker told me there was nothing they could do since I had no ID.
I felt lost, moving in circles. Where else could I go?
I went back to the ID station, hoping for a different response. They again said they couldn’t help. My frustration boiled.
I decided to take a break from my ID struggles and go to the pawn shop to sell my items for cash that I would unquestionably need for upcoming expenses. I agreed to pawn my TV for $140. While I was filling out paperwork, the worker asked to see my ID. My heart sank. When I couldn’t show any, the worker sent me away without completing the deal.
Time was called, signaling the end of my first week. I accomplished no task in the 15-minute interval, and the repeated rejections deflated me.
Then when I returned to my housing at the end of Week 1, a wild card was thrown my way: I got evicted. I landed in a homeless shelter with three other justice-involved people.
Though I had worked hard trying to accomplish tasks, by the end of the first week, I felt like a failure — defeated by my lack of progress.
Weeks 2 and 3
The next two weeks didn’t go much better. I still overwhelmingly struggled.
I went to the ID station again. This time, I got a different answer. I could fill out a form to get a free Social Security card. I paid $30 to obtain my birth certificate and state ID. It felt like a battle to get these crucial documents.
I was re-incarcerated twice — once for not completing my mandatory urine testing, another time for not paying my probation fees. Sitting in jail for a minute, honestly, felt like the first breather from all my struggles.
I got out of jail fairly quickly both times, but it struck me how torn I was about reentering society with all its challenges. It did cross my mind that it could be easier to just stay. After all, while incarcerated, I would be guaranteed a bed and a meal. Back in the community, that wasn’t the case.
Other participants also cycled in and out of jail. The homeless shelter got even more full as participants did not have enough money to afford rent.
Exasperation and frustration filled the room.
“This is so pitiful,” one person told me.
I finally started to complete tasks. I had a successful visit with my probation officer, bought groceries, earned my GED and obtained rental assistance from the social services agency. I also got handed another wild card: I developed flu-like symptoms but was able to acquire a prescription to treat my illness.
Completing these tasks wasn’t easy, but I felt like my reentry was trending in a more positive direction.
However, my situation still felt precarious because I didn’t have a job or stable housing.
The simulation demonstrated that it takes time for people to get established after being released from prison or jail. Many barriers can derail a successful reentry to society but, with appropriate support and resources for formerly incarcerated people, it is possible.
Every day, formerly incarcerated people endure the reentry challenges illustrated by the simulation. Ninety-eight percent of incarcerated people in North Carolina will eventually be released back into the community in the future — more than 22,000 people this year alone.
All won’t be successful. A 2022 report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission found a 49 percent re-arrest rate and 20 percent re-conviction rate from a sample of people released from prison in North Carolina in 2019.
As frustrating and defeating as the simulation was, it just scratched the surface of what formerly incarcerated individuals actually encounter — not having a support system, providers not knowing where to refer someone for assistance, an inability to keep up with expenses.
Additional reentry circumstances were not reflected in the simulation, such as navigating transportation to resources spread across a county, the safety and condition of housing arrangements post-release, being denied a job because of having a conviction record, not to mention the logistics of caring for children.
At the end of the hourlong simulation, I knew I could shed my justice-involved identity and return to my life — where I have a home, a job and food. For thousands of people, though, that is not their reality.
The simulation inspired me and the other participants to think more deeply about the reasons people may not be successful transitioning from incarceration to the community.
“There’s something wrong with this system, setting us up to fail,” one participant said.
The exercise prompted ideas about how participants could improve their work to better serve justice-involved individuals, such as whether hiring forms need to ask about previous convictions, mentorship opportunities and holding community resource fairs.
“In order for us to have them succeed, we all have to be a part of that change in society,” Thomas said.