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Simulation shows that life after prison can be tricky

David Krakow



St. Petersburg city councilmember John Muhammed, right, led Tuesday's discussion on recidivism among Florida inmates. Photo by David Krakow.

As part of the panel discussion on recidivism Dec. 12 at the Center for Health Equity, headed by City Council member John Muhammed, attendees were asked  to participate in a “re-entry simulation.” They were handed packets of information to spotlight the day-to-day challenges faced post-incarceration. 

RELATED READING: Muhammed and expert panel discuss recidivism in Florida

Justin’s attempt to ignite a new start in life got off to a rocky start.

Following Tuesday’s panel discussion, the 100 or so guests were invited to grab packets full of random profile information and attempt to navigate life re-entry after a “prison release.”

Justin – not his real name – played along with the “re-entry” simulation. He grabbed a packet and vetted the information inside. It was clear, quickly, that he had a long road ahead. There would be no quick and easy assimilation after serving 25 years in prison for murder and a drug conviction.

Justin’s packet of assets was dreary. He had a social security card, but no driver’s license or birth certificate. He was unemployed and living in a halfway house. He had $100 that, according to the paperwork provided, he had saved in prison.

There were 15 or so classroom tables lined up around the theater seating, each manned by someone who was tasked with assisting your navigation, touching on everyday subjects that those on the outside take for granted, from transportation and employment to health to those familiar only to those on the inside, like probation. And right off the bat, Justin made the wrong choice and visited the wrong table.

Since he was unemployed he went to, naturally, the unemployment table. Mirroring an ignorance that officials said is common among the recently released, he made a snap judgement: If he’s unemployed, he assumed, he needs a job. Once he has a job, he will then have money and can move out of the halfway house.

Not so fast.

He handed over the transportation ticket that was admission to talk to anyone at any table to the woman handling unemployment. “Hi, I need a job,” he blurted.

“Good for you,” she said with a faintly perceptible sneer. “Do you have a driver’s license?”

Sheepishness was Justin’s only recourse. “Um, no, is that necessary?”

It is, obviously, necessary.  Justin had applied for plenty of jobs in his life. It’s easy to apply for a job without handing over identification. But then, what if an offer is proffered?

As he slumped away from the unemployment table to locate his next target, Justin shook his head after the bulb went off and he realized that he’d never started a job without proof of identification. In his defense, it had been a while.

“Fine,” he muttered. There were still five minutes left in this exercise intended to replicate the experience in the first week after getting out of prison. There were four one-week segments, planned that way because, according to Stephanie Perry, Assistant Director of the Florida Department of Corrections, the first 30 days can be make-or-break for people trying to start their lives anew.

Justin headed towards the generically named ID table and immediately experienced that sinking feeling you have when you hit the concession stand as intermission is about to end and realize the queue is 30 people long. The message was implicit, whether planned by the organizers or happenstance: If you are under the influence of some unseen stopwatch and make any wrong moves, you could throw the entire enterprise off-kilter.

The line moved quickly. Justin handed over a transportation ticket, meaning he only had one left of the three allotted; the unemployment lady did not return his ticket any more than the transit company will return your fare after you take the wrong bus.

He was handed two forms, one for a Florida driver’s license and the other an “application of a vital record” to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to track down his birth certificate. Yup, Justin was born in Missouri and now had to hope he could retrieve the certificate. Perry had warned everyone that crossing state lines for forms gums up the process in almost every circumstance.

Cost for the two forms? $30. That would leave Justin with $70. With money going out and none coming in – yet – the precariousness of it all was daunting. Justin earned his GED in prison, so there was one ray of hope.

Other ways to make money? There was a plasma table and the information provided said you could sell your vital reds for $25. Maybe Justin had items he could pawn or sell.

And Justin may be unemployed, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a lot of work ahead of him: Weekly appointments for probation, treatment/counseling, career center and Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous. According to panelist Patrick Mahoney, Director of the Office of Programs and Re-Entry at the Florida Department of Corrections, 60% of all prisoners have substance issues of some sort requiring attention.

The most ominous of the tables was simply called Chance. Justin had no idea what this meant until it was explained. His only reference was a Monopoly board and this was, indeed about  choices but with a lot more at stake.

The point of the Chance table was simple; once out, the chance of recidivism for ex-prisoners is around 25%, Mahoney explained. Many released prisoners hit a fork in the road, get impatient with attempts to start the straight life and decide to rob a bank or sell drugs, choices that could mean a return trip to prison.

Justin left wondering if he would take that chance and, if so, would he wind up suddenly, fallaciously enriched or back behind bars.

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  1. Avatar


    December 28, 2023at3:14 pm

    You paid your price and it only takes one person to say yes. It will be difficult but others have been in the same situation and a caring person might be able to give you a start. Be sincere and honest. It only takes one special person.

  2. Avatar


    December 17, 2023at6:39 pm

    I deny the language that treats criminality as some sort of lottery. Civil society is held hostage by criminals and protecting ourselves from them exacts an enormous cost. Don’t want to be treated like a criminal? Don’t perpetuate criminal acts! You’re surprised to be at the back of the line when a hundred people are waiting to line up in front of your criminal selves? Take responsibility for your choices. Eat mud. Why do I have to meet you halfway? Did you meet your victims halfway?

  3. Avatar

    james gillespie

    December 17, 2023at7:35 am


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