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Simulation gives Berks residents a look at the challenges faced by people released from incarceration

Jeffrey Smith knows a thing or two about what it’s like to spend time behind bars.

The Berks County Prison warden has spent the last 20 years of his professional life focusing on that. He’s responsible for the men and women who find themselves incarcerated, and it gives him an intimate view of what the experience is like.

But once those inmates are released from jail, once they leave their cells behind and attempt to rejoin society, that’s a different story. That is why Smith decided to spend a few hours recently at the West Lawn United Methodist Church Community Center.

The warden was one of about 100 people who took part in a simulation meant to show the challenges that people released from prison encounter after their release back into the community.

Hosted in collaboration with Connections Work, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Probation Office, the program is part of a nationwide effort to increase empathy for people leaving prison. It was the first event of its kind to be held in Berks.

Participants took on the identities of men and women reentering the community after being incarcerated, experiencing firsthand the challenges of that experience.

For Smith, that meant becoming Leah.

Leah served 25 years in state and federal prison for murder, felony possession of a firearm and a drug conviction.

When she was released, Leah had a lot going for her. She was a high school graduate, had saved $200 in prison, was living in an apartment with a significant other and making $150 at a part-time job.

Berks County Prison Warden Jeffrey Smith leafs through his identification packet during a reentry simulation organized by Connections Work. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Berks County Prison Warden Jeffrey Smith leafs through his identification packet during a reentry simulation organized by Connections Work in collaboration with the U. S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Probation Office. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

But spending some time as Leah was eye-opening for Smith, as he discovered just how difficult it can be to get back on your feet. He struggled with obtaining a state identification card, earning enough money for housing and food and finding enough time to attend required meetings and appointments.

He was even sent back to jail twice, once for selling drugs and once for failing a drug test.

The experience, Smith said, gave him a new appreciation for what it’s like to try to restart a life after spending time incarcerated.

Gaining understanding

That was the whole point of the event, according to Nikki Schnovel, co-executive director of Connections Work, who helped organize the event. It is designed to help participants gain a deeper understanding of the significant challenges faced by individuals reentering society after incarceration.

“Our hope is that this event will foster empathy and promote positive change which will ultimately lead to a smoother transition for those we serve,” she said. “The obstacles that these people must overcome are not as easy as people may think. And this exercise gives them that perspective that they would not otherwise have had before.”

Schnovel said it happened to her when she participated in the simulation a few years ago. Though she had been working with reentrants for nearly 20 years at that point, she said the experience was illuminating.

“I learned how difficult it can be just trying to survive,” she said. “It can be hard to navigate the system when you get out and so easy to give up when you are faced with so many challenges. So it made me more empathetic to the people going through it.”

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Jacqueline Romero said educating the public about the challenges of reentry and supporting people with their transition is part of a comprehensive strategy to help prevent recidivism, combat crime and make communities safer.

“By working together, we can ensure that people have the tools and resources they need to succeed in life following their release from prison,” she said.

Romero said people may not realize that 95% of all prisoners who are behind bars today will eventually be released from prison. And nearly 70% of those people end up back in prison for committing new offenses. So making sure they have what they need to be successful following their release is the best way to ensure they stay out for good.

Walking in their footsteps

Participants were given packets containing background information about the person they were to portray. That information included their criminal history, housing status, employment standing and identification documents.

The reentry simulation event was the first of its ever held in Berks County. About 100 residents took part in the exercise. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
About 100 people took part in a reentry simulation that was the first of its kind to be held in Berks County. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

The exercise represents the first month in the life of someone returning home. They were then given a monthly task list to complete with one week represented by 15 minutes of the simulation.

They had varying resources to accomplish those tasks, such as money, transportation tickets and items that could be cashed in at a pawn shop.

There were stations manned by volunteers representing places where the participants would have to travel to complete their weekly tasks. These included complying with the terms of their probation, finding a job, attending treatment, managing family responsibilities, paying bills and purchasing transportation.

What they learned

The simulation was followed by a discussion about the criminal justice system and the complexities faced by those returning home from serving prison sentences.

People described the frustrations they felt while working through their tasks. Some said they found the simulation hard to navigate on their own, some expressed exasperation about finding themselves back in prison despite working hard to stay out, and some complained about the lack of guidance from people who were supposed to help.

But all of the participants noted the exercise made them more empathetic to the difficulties that these people must overcome.

Smith said the experience was enlightening.

Berks County Prison Warden Jeffrey Smith ended up in jail for repeated infractions during the reentry simulation. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
During a reentry simulation, Berks County Prison Warden Jeffrey Smith ended up in jail for repeated infractions. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“It was frustrating for me once I was released from prison to be without what I needed to succeed,” he said. “I was stressed out the whole time and ended up not even completing half the tasks that I was supposed to. I felt like I was still handcuffed and had no control over my life.”

Smith said he has a better understanding of what reentrants face after they leave prison and will be putting that newfound perspective to use at the facility he oversees.

“I’ll probably spend a lot more time exploring our options about getting them prepared for life in the community before they leave,” he said.

That was the same conclusion Elise Santarelli and Valeri Harteg said they reached when asked to reflect on the simulation.

Santarelli, who works for the county court administration, said she went into the simulation aware that she would have to be tenacious to accomplish all the tasks. But she was still surprised at just how difficult it was.

Harteg said she approached the simulation thinking that she could complete her tasks without much trouble. She ended up not doing as well as she expected.

“In the end, I was pretty much bankrupt and was getting so desperate that I was considering committing a bank robbery,” she said. “And so I think I was thinking about it like I will follow the rules and I’ll be OK. But that wasn’t good enough.”

She said that even the people who were manning the stations were unable to help her.

“It was very real in that I think a lot of people who want to help are struggling with huge caseloads and funding issues,” she said.

As an instructor for the Literacy Council of Reading-Berks, Harteg said the experience made her think about how she could advocate for clients who may need help accessing community resources.

Santarelli echoed that sentiment. She said she’s going to learn as much as she can about the services available in the community so she can help when she hears someone is struggling with the reentry process.

“I think I’ll also try to encourage people more to keep at it because it can be so easy to get overwhelmed and just want to give up,” she said.

Source: Berkshire mont

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