Life after prison proves to be frustrating, even for those only pretending they’re trying to get back on their feet

The game is rigged, but that’s the point.

The couple dozen people racing the halls of the Eastern State Penitentiary on Tuesday night were not having a good time as they attempted to complete probation requirements, make it to work and hawk their few belongings for much-needed cash. When time was up, a facilitator on a bullhorn would order everyone to stop, and often throw in a new curveball, like sending a handful of people to jail for unknowingly buying fake IDs.

The two-hour simulation was designed to give players glimpses at the struggles people returning from prison face in their first couple weeks back home. Developed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this reentry activity has previously only been offered to lawyers, students, law enforcement officials and social workers. That all changed on Tuesday at 6 p.m., when the Eastern State Penitentiary hosted a sold-out simulation for the public.

“When they said, what if we offered this to the general public, we jumped at the chance to host the first one,” Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation for Eastern State Penitentiary, said. The historic prison site in Fairmount’s mission is to examine the legacy of criminal justice reform in the U.S. and spur conversation about its future. “What better place than this abandoned prison to stop and think about how we can help people coming home to transition more effectively and more equitably, and have a better shot at rebuilding their lives?”

The simulation is broken up into 10-minute increments, each representing a week. Every participant receives a packet with basic biographical information, including education level, employment status and time spent in prison. That packet also includes tasks that must be completed each week, every two weeks or once a month — like parole check-ins, attending drug treatments sessions and AA meetings, making child support payments and fulfilling job obligations. 

Traveling to any new “site,” whether it’s the table representing a career center or a food bank, requires a transportation ticket. New tickets can be purchased, but only in bundles of five and only if you already have at least one ticket. Several forms of ID must be presented at most sites, and many players start the game with only one or none at all. Rent and food naturally cost money, but so do the court-ordered drug tests and treatments.

Participants can theoretically earn $25 twice a week by donating blood, but in reality, that doesn’t always pan out. They might qualify, or they might be anemic, high or ineligible due to a recent tattoo. Which leaves them just as broke, and with one less transportation ticket.

Failure to complete tasks can land players in jail, a bench where they must post cash bail to get out. Missed rent payments sends them to another bench, the halfway house.

A whiteboard with the header “How Do You Feel?” stood in the center of the room during Tuesday evening’s simulation. As the game wore on, players stopped to vent their frustrations in dry erase markers. They were hopeless, hungry, angry and sick of waiting in lines. “Lock me up,” read one message. “Jail is easier.”

That feeling was also an engineered piece of the simulation. According to a 2022 report from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, nearly 65% of people released from state prisons are rearrested or reincarcerated within three years. Those rates have remained more or less the same, apart from tiny increases, for the past 16 years. The simulation seeks to show participants why this phenomenon occurs, and build empathy for people experiencing it.

“I think that many of our visitors assume that when the door of the prison swings open and someone walks out, that they just restart their life,” Kelley said. “And if they get tripped up and wind up back in prison, that’s because they’re a bad person. But when you begin learning more about all of the different ways in which people coming home from prison have to meet very, very, very specific expectations or else they’ll go back, you realize how difficult we make it for people.”

After the simulation, speakers facilitated discussions about the realities of reentry and recidivism. They included partners from PAR-Recycle Works, an e-waste recycler that provides employment for Philadelphians returning from prison and an educator at Eastern State Penitentiary who had spent time in prison. The people managing their transition were often ruder in real life, they said, and the constant hurdles to prove they deserved a second chance made them feel less human.

“This was a game for us, right?” Maurice Q. Jones, general manager of PAR-Recycle Works, said. “‘Cause we have a place to go home and sleep. We have food, we have clothing. So it’s not necessarily real for us, but it’s definitely real for a lot of people that are coming home. This is why we do this. So you can feel it.”

By the end of the simulation, only a handful of players had made it past Week 2. Many hadn’t even completed their Week 1 checklist. Fresh off these frustrations, the conversation turned to how Pennsylvania — and the entire country — could make reentry easier for the over 600,000 people returning from state and federal prisons each year.

What if correctional facilities provided 30-day public transit passes upon release? Identification, one of the biggest hurdles in the simulation, was a particularly hot topic. Driver’s licenses often expire while people are in prison, and fewer than half of U.S. states require prisons to provide a temporary IDs, state IDs or copies of birth certificates and social security cards upon release. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

The simulation wasn’t designed to advocate any particular reentry policies. But Eastern State Penitentiary, which is considering hosting the activity again, hopes it at least gets players thinking about reform and the real people who might be struggling to juggle all those check-ins, bills and curveballs the legal system throws their way.

“We do hold as a general policy belief that deciding how to reduce the prison population is in all of our best interest, and it can be done,” Kelley said. “And we advocate that there should be fewer people in prison in the United States. 

“But beyond that, we consider ourself a place where we present information and we host dialogue and we respect the voices of our visitors. And it’s not on us to lecture our visitors about the specific answers, but it is on us to illustrate the patterns, what’s happening in our society, and then ask provocative questions and make space for our visitors to talk to one another and to talk to us, and to get a conversation going around these issues that are some of the most important civil rights issues of our times.”

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