In August, the Tennessee Office of Reentry hosted a reentry simulation to help partner organizations learn the challenges facing people leaving incarceration. The Office of Reentry, a statewide comprehensive resource for reentry information, direction, and planning, hosted the day-long event in Clarksville, Tennessee that included more than 40 participants from entities such as the legislature, department of health, nonprofits, employers, sheriff’s offices, jails, and church groups. The simulation allowed these individuals to experience the common barriers facing someone returning to society after a period of incarceration. Through this simulation, each person had the chance to think critically about ways the reentry process can improve in the future. The reentry office is also dedicated to helping employers better understand barriers and how they can have significant influence in the process.

Each participant in the simulation received a folder containing their simulated backstory. The information included whether the participant had an ID, money, transportation tickets, a job, a place to live, and fees to pay (including court payments and rent).

With this information, participants recreated three weeks in the life of an individual experiencing reentry. Each week lasted 20 minutes, with the participants visiting tables around the room representing common situations facing individuals upon reentry. Among these situations were visits to volunteers acting as staff in the probation and parole office, drug testing locations, counseling agencies, jail, employment offices and job sites, a bank, a court, a grocery store, and landlords. Those participants who did not have ID or transportation tickets needed to acquire these items before proceeding to any other table.

What participants did not expect were the obstacles they faced in completing these tasks.

To carry out the simulation some volunteers provided helpful support, while others did not. Volunteers were told they had creative freedom to be as helpful or unhelpful as possible with their assistance and how it was provided. The unhelpful support provided by some volunteers was designed purposefully to allow participants to recognize how the reentry process can be confusing or uncomfortable, which was compounded by minimal directions provided before the simulation began.

While overcoming these hurdles, simulation volunteers would randomly hand participants cards conveying unexpected challenges that impeded the process and inevitably cost money, like a family member destroying property or a car breaking down. If participants could not overcome these unexpected challenges in a timely manner, they were sequestered in a space used as a jail.

“I knew the process would be frustrating, but it exceeded my expectations,” said Abigail Strait, Senior Policy Specialist for CJI. “It was surprisingly emotional for a simulation. You realize just how big the system is and how complicated it is to navigate.”

“It’s one thing to talk about reentry, it’s another to experience it, even if it’s just a simulated version of it,” said Trevor White, Communications and Training Specialist for the Tennessee Office of Reentry. “These simulations bring together stakeholders from all sides to share a collective experience which leads to more meaningful and connected conversations around how we can improve reentry across Tennessee.”

In the post-simulation debrief, the participants had a chance to share their reactions and reflect critically on how overwhelming the process is for people reentering their communities. One participant commented that they better understood why people they had worked with in the past had been distrusting given how exhausting the scenarios were and how bad experiences could worsen that as time goes on. Participants also used this opportunity to connect with other agencies and service providers with plans to collaborate more effectively in the future and ensure stronger outcomes.

“As we debriefed, people focused on system mapping to identify strategies to improve the support people receive,” noted CJI Policy Specialist Jenn Plourde. “Participants emphasized the value in being kind and providing grace, keeping in perspective just how much giving others the benefit of the doubt could make a meaningful impact. They began formulating solutions, such as offering evening hours or weekend times to accommodate those who cannot come in for services during the workday.”

For every participant, one commonality was consistently being raised: advocating for people experiencing reentry was of great importance. This support opens opportunities to those who need them.