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Project H.O.P.E. Re-Entry Simulation Brings Ex-Offender Struggles to Life

 

Contact: Eric T. Day, Reentry Coordinator, United States Attorney's Office, Southern District of Alabama  Phone (251) 441-5845  Email:  eric.day@usdoj.gov

 

It took less than 45 minutes for Kenyen Brown to make his point.

On Friday, March 4, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama offered dozens of Mobile area elected officials, business leaders, clergy, social service agency representatives and members of law enforcement a compressed glimpse into the barriers ex-offenders face when transitioning back into their communities.

From stolen identification cards and failed drug tests to homelessness and lack of transportation funds, the Project H.O.P.E (Helping Offenders Pursue Excellence) Re-Entry Simulation is designed to help decision-makers in the re-entry process more clearly understand the obstacles ex-offenders face on their paths to re-establishing themselves as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

Each simulation participant was issued a “Life Card”, detailing his or her identity, circumstances of incarceration, level of education, financial and employment status They were then asked to navigate a “month-in-the-life” of that persona – rectifying any blemishes tarnishing their new identity – by floating amongst a series of simulated life experiences, such as applying for a new ID card, paying required court costs, visiting parole officers, seeking employment and even applying for assistance when all resources had been exhausted.

Each “week” lasted 15 minutes, with “transportation tickets” required to move from station to station becoming more valuable than food and even cash, itself,

By the close of the third week, Brown directed the dwindling participant group’s attention to the overflowing makeshift jail, now holding about two-thirds of the original crowd that for myriad reasons found themselves right back where they started, mirroring state and federal recidivism rates.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 30,000 of the nation’s recorded 2.3 million incarcerated people are housed in Alabama prisons and jails.

Of that broader national figure, the bureau estimates 30 percent of adult offenders released from state prisons are re-arrested within the first six months of their release and roughly 67 percent are re-incarcerated within three years. Moreover, Project H.O.P.E. reports the number of parole violators has more than doubled to 35 percent compared with 17 percent in 1980, making them the fastest-growing category of prison admissions.

Alabama Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, who chairs Brown's re-entry task force, cautioned simulation participants about the “life-changing” experience Project H.O.P.E. brings to bear

“(Brown) gets it! It’s a win-win situation when we can offer our ex-offenders an opportunity to re-enter the community and become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens,” Figures said.

Jeremy Sherer, re-entry coordinator for Alabama’s northern district of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, witnessed more than his share of setbacks during the exercise.

His newly-released alter-ego, Ned, had served four years in federal prison for internet fraud, and had zero money to his name but did have a bachelor’s degree in accounting and all of his identification documents. Ned pawned his only asset, a camera, for half its value and set out to find a job, but trips to see his parole officer took time and money he didn’t have, and he didn’t find gainful employment until his second “week.” He had been re-arrested for failed drug tests by the fourth week.

Sherer said he found the experience invaluable and is working with Brown’s office to replicate the simulation for the Alabama Legislature in April as well as in his home district.

Other shadowed alter-egos included:

  • Alyssa, who had served seven years for methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute. She left prison with $200 saved and a part-time job paying $120 per week, but no identification meaning she couldn’t report for work. Although she succeeded in getting both her Social Security card and ID in week 2, she turned up to mandated counseling having tested positive for drugs, so they sent her to her parole officer who, in turn, sent her to court, and jail was her last stop.
  • Abby, who also served seven years for methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute. She, also, had saved $200 in prison and had a part-time job paying $120 per week, but she had been incapable of passing drug tests; was actually kicked out of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting for being disruptive; didn’t pay her rent; and landed back in jail by the close of week 3.
  • Nicole, who had served four years in federal prison for internet fraud. She was released with zero money, but fortunately lived with her parents and was able to attain $50 in food stamp assistance. It took her until week 3 to have all of her paperwork in order to seek employment, which she finally gained in week 4.

Brown deemed the simulation a success when participants expressed frustration with “roadblocks at every turn” and a general sense of helplessness and anxiety as complications compounded.

He called it a glimpse into “how this system is designed to fail” and implored those gathered to parlay their new sense of empathy into action.

“You are the leaders in this community…It’s up to you to start the conversation about how we tear down these barriers,” Brown said.

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