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My name is Sarah, and I am a student intern at the Duke University Human Rights Center. On April 14, 2023, I attended a re-entry simulation that put into perspective the harsh reality of reentry into society after incarceration.

As a part of the human rights certificate program, all certificate seniors complete a capstone course in human rights. The goal of this course is to work on a hands-on project related to human rights to connect academic work with real-world change. The spring 2023 cohort of human rights certificate students, led by Dr. James Chappel, took on the challenge of aiding reentry efforts in Durham and North Carolina. To accomplish this, they partnered with OurJourney, a North Carolina non-profit that supports formerly incarcerated people in their re-entry to society. The capstone students identified a need to raise awareness within the Duke and Durham community about the difficulties of reentry, so they created a simulation to demonstrate the immense challenges that await newly freed people. As a student who is deeply interested in mass incarceration, the prison system, and the hardship of reentry, I found it particularly compelling to attend and would like to share some key takeaways.

The simulation began with everyone being assigned the life of a fictional person. This life was conveyed through two main items: your case sheet and weekly timeline. On your case sheet, you saw your current situation: if you have a state-ID, housing, or a job; how much money you have saved; items that you own that could be pawned, and more. On your weekly timeline, you could see the tasks that you must complete each week, such as seeing your probation officer, attending AA meetings, and buying food. Every person had a different situation, and some were much more difficult than others — exemplifying that every person approaches reentry from a different starting point.

To complete the simulation, you must complete all your tasks for each week, for four weeks. There were tables set up around the room that represented different stations such as a grocery store, social services, career services, a church, probation, etc. There was also a curfew for each week by which you must return to your seat, or you are sent to jail. In my simulation, I began without a state ID, driver’s license, or social security card. This posed a particular issue because you cannot complete any of the other tasks without these forms of ID. However, the line for an ID was immensely long and required a lot of paperwork to fill out. This meant that during the first week, the only thing I was able to accomplish was getting my ID — so I was sent back to jail for failure to comply with all my assigned tasks. 

In future weeks, I tried things like getting a job so that I could pay rent. However, this proved nearly useless as almost no places would hire a formerly incarcerated person. It took a long time to get a job, and attending work meant that I could complete nearly none of my other tasks by the curfew time. During all this tribulation, a person over the microphone repeatedly criticized us for not trying hard enough. In not one week did I successfully complete all my tasks, and I was sent back to jail twice for failure to comply. 

Reflections from the fellow participants were particularly telling, such as that the role of the church was a major help through providing services like free transportation. Many others also found that collaborating and discussing with other participants was most helpful, but in the real world it is often discouraged to associate with other formerly incarcerated people. Some even found it easier to go to jail or give up than to engage in the weekly tasks — a lesson that highlights the sad reality that our complex system creates. 

After the simulation, we heard from some members of OurJourney, many of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves. One of the most profound takeaways from the formerly incarcerated people who told their stories was a lack of transparency and support. In the simulation, every resource that was available to you was easily found. However, in the real world, people often do not know where to find resources or how to get to them — and in under-resourced areas, they do not always exist. 

For this reason, the human rights capstone seniors, along with OurJourney, set out to create a reentry guide for formerly incarcerated people. This guide contains information on what resources are available in your county of North Carolina and how to access them. The goal is that this guide will be provided to all North Carolina prisoners upon release, inside of a box with other resources such as two doses of Narcan to prevent death by overdose.

From this simulation, I learned that reentry is even more difficult than I had imagined and that resources are not often transparent or accessible. I left the simulation with a newfound desire to aid in reentry efforts and get involved with organizations like OurJourney in North Carolina. And, beyond resources, this simulation emphasized the deep importance for empathy towards those trying to reenter society and find their place after incarceration. 

For more information on how to get involved in reentry efforts, visit the OurJourney website.