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Prosecutors Get Real Look at Life After Prison

by Dale Chappell

A dozen prosecutors and other criminal justice workers got a real life look at what it’s like to re-enter society after being in prison – ­­and every one of them failed to get everything done as required by their “probation officers.”

The Reentry Simulation took place at the Fortune Society’s headquarters located in Harlem, New York. The idea was to offer prosecutors a view from the eyes of someone who has been released from prison, in hopes of changing the “punishment culture” prevalent among prosecutors. The Fortune Society provides services to former prisoners in New York.

The project turned the tables, literally, on participating prosecutors. Tables were set up and labeled “Food Bank,” “Probation,” “ID Center,” “Transportation,” “Treatment” and others, and ex-prisoners gave instructions to the prosecutors based on what they had experienced during their own release when dealing with these different agencies and services.

The prosecutors were given four “weeks” to accomplish a host of tasks facing a person just released from jail or prison. Each “week” lasted only 15 minutes, and they had to buy a bus ticket each week to get where they needed to be – and be on time and not miss probation appointments, or they would be violated. None succeeded.

A paper – co-authored by Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., Fortune Society executive director Stan Richards and NYU Center on the Administration of Criminal Law executive director Courtney Oliva – underscored the results of the Reentry Simulation. “The time has come for prosecutors to expand the notion of what their jobs entail,” it said. “Public safety and community betterment are not served by ignoring what happens to people after a prosecutor obtains a sentence.”

During the experiment, it didn’t take long for the “releasee” prosecutors to start complaining: “Does anyone know where to get an ID?” one said aloud. They realized that getting anything done without identification was extremely difficult. “Within minutes, I realized it is just impossible,” one said. “And we are only going across the room. I cannot imagine how difficult it actually must be to complete these tasks in real life.”

In a review after the exercise, the former prisoners gave frank advice to the prosecutors about what they had faced after their release, which was the same thing the prosecutors had all just failed to accomplish. This included lost IDs, lost Social Security cards and missing birth certificates – things critical for obtaining an ID.

When the prosecutors missed their probation appointment, they were all “arrested” on the spot and taken back to “jail” during their second week out of prison. They were told they couldn’t be homeless when they couldn’t find a place to live, and the food bank wouldn’t help them because they had a little too much money.

On its website, the Fortune Society has a page called “Reentry: Returning Home,” which states some sobering facts. Approximately 35 percent of people in prison don’t have their high school diploma or GED, more than double that of the non-incarcerated population. And when they apply for jobs, about 50 percent of the time they won’t get a callback due to their criminal record.

Prison also severs family ties. Held in jails far from home and with so many obstacles put in place by prison officials to hinder visits and phone calls, prisoners often lose contact with their families. This means thousands of children will grow up without the emotional support of a mother or father.

Former prisoners also face homelessness at a rate 7.5 to 11.3 times higher than the general public. And the New York City Housing Authority won’t allow releasees to live in public housing because of their criminal history. The demand for affordable housing in general in New York City makes it impossible for ex-prisoners to find a place to live without the help of agencies like the Housing Authority.

All of the prosecutors who participated in the Reentry Simulation were given anonymity to allow them to speak freely. One said after the experiment that it “forced me to think about all the ways I can bring changes to my jurisdiction.”

Other similar projects have been held to educate prosecutors on the problems that people face upon their release from prison or jail, including an event held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York in late 2018. 



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