I Got a Taste of What It’s Like to Leave the Kentucky Prison System
I've never been in jail or prison, but I just spent a day learning what it's like to get out of one. The Kentucky Career Center, the Green River Reentry Council, in partnership with River Valley Behavioral Health, recently joined forces to stage a reentry simulation on campus at Owensboro Community and Technical College. Various community members were invited to participate in that simulation. I didn't really know what to expect, but I signed myself and my radio co-host- Mary-Katherine Maddox- up for it. What we learned was equal parts frustrating, demoralizing, rewarding, and impactful.
Here's how the simulation worked. We were each assigned a character. That character was reentering the population after being released from jail. I was Albert- a man who spent years in prison for manufacturing and distributing meth. MKat was Wilson- a man who spent time in jail for repeated drug offenses as well. We were then given a checklist of projects to complete.
Those projects included going to work, getting drug tested, buying tokens for public transportation, going to the grocery, checking in with probation and parole, drug counseling, etc. That checklist also included requirements like paying rent, etc.
For the purposes of the simulation, we would spend "one month" walking in the shoes of Albert and Wilson. But that "one month" was divided into four 15-minute segments. Each of those segments represented a week in the life of each. I was curious about what life as Albert would look like and I quickly found Albert benefiting from the mindset of Chad. I knew immediately, after learning how much cash he had on hand, that Albert was going to need to prioritize work. Albert was working part-time and was earning $120 a week at that job. I knew there was no way that Albert could accomplish anything else he needed to accomplish if he wasn't earning the money that some of those tasks required. So, Albert went to work and earned some cash.
The parts of Albert's life that frustrated me were the parts that I couldn't control. Through the course of my weeks as Albert, he failed two drug tests. Chad- whom that would never happen to- was frustrated that Albert was keeping me from completing all my tasks. Albert also got thrown out of a counseling session for poor behavior. That prevented Albert from accomplishing something else that he needed to do. My attempts to donate plasma for money were thwarted by things Albert hadn't taken into consideration. He made some ill-advised decisions that were making it nearly impossible to complete that checklist of tasks.
What happened next in the experience is still with me. Chad realized that he was going to have to cut Albert some slack. While Chad is in control of his own life, he's not in control of Albert's and there are circumstances in Albert's life, some at least, that are beyond Albert's control. For example, Albert showed up to work one day and was turned away because the computers were down. Albert was also hit with some unexpected expenses that he didn't have in the budget. Hell, Albert was two weeks late on rent because his funds were so incredibly tight and he was struggling to come up with enough money to do it. I had to pawn a guitar just to be able to make that payment for him. I didn't buy groceries until Week #4. But, Chad got Albert to buckle down and we made it through our "month" together by completing every task we were assigned.
It wasn't easy, but we made it happen.
Albert and I even managed to carry over a $120 into the next month. We paid. We saved. We survived. For Albert, that was about the best he could do.
Mary-Katherine's "Wilson" barely did that. Wilson spent three of the four weeks of the month in jail.
While Mary-Katherine tried to catch him a break, it wasn't happening for Wilson. Sure, Wilson was failing drug tests every time he showed up for one, but Mary-Katherine learned, quickly, just how stacked against someone that system can be.
MKat doesn't know I took this photo but look at her expression. Remember, this is a role-play exercise. There was nothing truly at stake for Mary-Katherine here. But, as Wilson, there was plenty at stake and the odds were never in his favor.
Honestly, that's a lesson we all learned.
I spent my time at the re-entry simulation glad that I was a part of it. I also spent my time making a mental checklist of the community members and leaders who needed to be there experiencing it too but weren't. The room was full of social workers who already know this system- its rewards and failures. They shared stories of anonymous clients they work with - how they sometimes navigate that system and how they sometimes get bludgeoned by it. It was eye-opening, at times encouraging, at times discouraging, and always challenging.
I left glad that Albert got to live life like Chad for an hour or so. But, nearly a week later, I can still feel Chad learning valuable lessons because I had the privilege and honor of living like Albert.
For some additional perspective, MKat and I interviewed Eurel Maddox, who served nine years in prison, then tackled his own reentry.