Nervous laughter echoed through Flory Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon during an interactive simulation of the challenges faced by individuals transitioning from a life of incarceration into the community.
City administrators, public health officials, social service providers, and representatives of the judicial system were among those who took part in the event, presented through a partnership between the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Reentry Program and Johnson County Government.
Reentry Program Director Carrie Neis said laughter was to be expected as community members attempted to tackle the challenges faced by many leaving incarceration, but she said it was important to remember that in real life, similar roadblocks can lead to homelessness, unemployment, and recidivism.
“This is real life for people,” Neis said. “This is what people go through when they leave custody. If it’s overwhelming, if it’s confusing, that’s OK. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Individuals at the end of a correctional sentence may have served their time, but many don’t have the resources or skills to navigate post-release requirements. Sheriff Jay Armbrister said that some who leave custody often can’t find employment or housing simply because they don’t have the means to secure proper identification.
“It wasn’t until I learned more about the system that I realized what a privilege that is,” he said.
Wednesday’s participants received a packet of materials issuing them a new name and information about their criminal background, level of education, and post-incarceration housing and employment status. They were issued several transportation vouchers and a schedule of their court-ordered appointments. Some, though not all, also received pieces of identification and small amounts of money.
They then used the minimal information they were given to navigate four 15-minute mock weeks of completing assignments at tables representing a courthouse, employer, social service organizations, bank, church, health care, utilities, housing, grocery store, treatment, probation office, and a pawn shop, among others.
Douglas County District Court Judge Stacey Donovan, known during the simulation as “Sharon,” began her first “week” seeking to earn money by selling plasma. She was turned away, however, and had to spend the second of five transportation vouchers to visit the identification table, where she was fortunate to have a birth certificate, social security card, and $15.
Minutes later, “Sharon” grudgingly accepted $40 at the pawn shop for an item she said was valued at $50. She then spent $15 for a drug test, which, when passed, elicited a “Good job. I’m proud of you!” from the mock test administrator.
Donovan said that as a public defender for 22 years, she had been aware of some clients’ struggles. She said she participated in Wednesday’s program to get an even better idea of the hurdles that can complicate rejoining the community after confinement.
“I gave clients rides and things when I could, but this is a lot,” Donovan said. “As I suspected, getting an ID was very hard. I heard my clients talk about these things, and I wanted to experience it.”
On the opposite sides of reentry simulation tables sat representatives from the Douglas County reentry program; Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center; and DCCCA, a Douglas County behavioral health and substance use treatment facility. Also included were graduates of the Douglas County reentry program and participants in Artists Helping the Homeless, a Kansas City-based organization that works with area agencies to ease the transition out of incarceration.
AHH participant Michael Escobar oversaw the identification process during Wednesday’s simulation, making his one of the busier tables in the room. He told participants that he understood the frustration of pulling together the documents required for a valid ID.
“I can genuinely say everything I put you guys through was something I’ve been through myself,” he said.
Working the payday loan and pawn shop table was Dylan Krzyzopolski, who said he currently lives in Bodhi House, an AHH facility that provides food, clothing, personal hygiene items, and prescription medicines free of charge to those who are working their way back into the community.
Krzyzopolski said he served time at the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland, Missouri, and had prepared for his own post-release through similar simulations. He said he had been through the difficulties of trying to find employment without housing, clothing or money for transportation, and he wanted Wednesday’s participants to understand those obstacles.
“This program is wonderful,” Krzyzopolski said. “There’s some people that ain’t cut from the cloth I am. They haven’t been on the inside, and they are blissfully ignorant. This gives them a little more understanding.”
Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens said he was intrigued by the reentry simulation after having participated earlier in a poverty simulation that utilizes a similar model of interaction.
He called the experience “moving” and appreciated details like drawing a card to determine whether participants passed or failed simulated drug tests, which he said paralleled the capricious nature of addiction. Owens’ program name was “Shawn,” and by the end of the simulated four weeks, both he and Donovan’s “Sharon” found themselves “living in a halfway house” after “failing” several drug tests.
“It’s been a powerful experience to help better understand the system and how it affects people’s lives,” Owens said. “I think people don’t understand the complexities of reestablishing yourself and enjoying the things that most people take for granted.”
The Douglas County/Johnson County partnership has scheduled future reentry and poverty simulations throughout summer and fall. For more information, visit the Douglas County Reentry Program website. Registration for future simulations is free and open to the public.
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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.