A few years ago, I got to participate in a learning opportunity called a simulator. In a simulator, you are put into a scenario playing a role and get to experience for yourself a small part of what it is like to actually be in the situation that the simulator is trying to show you. This simulator was about poverty, where the participants are given a “life” that mimics some of the challenges faced by people in poverty, then you get to try to get through a few simulated weeks with whatever resources are available. You get tokens for transportation, because you have to get to places. You are given a job (or not) that you also have to be able to get to. You have to buy food, pay rent, take care of your kids, and so on. The simulation only lasts for a couple of hours, but you get a real (very small) taste of what it is really like to deal with the challenges of poverty. One of the things you learn is that not having much money is only a part of the overall challenge of poverty. Transportation, for instance, is a huge hurdle that impacts the ability to do most everything else. Being able to do something that is simple for most of us, like cashing a check, becomes an obstacle. There were a few things that really stuck with me from my experience with the poverty simulator. One was how little I really understood about poverty. One can grasp the concept of poverty easily enough, but what it actually means, day-to-day, is something else again. Another takeaway for me was how tiring it was, emotionally and physically, just trying to manage each day. People living with poverty don’t have many choices in life. Most of the things they have to do, they really HAVE to do, because there are usually pretty severe consequences for not getting it done. On top of that, people in poverty generally have to live with a lot of variables that are outside of their control. They are often one broken-down car, one bout of the flu or unpaid bill away from disaster.
I think, though, beyond those valuable lessons, what the simulator also taught me was the practical difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is what you feel for someone who is going through something difficult. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t have a personality disorder can feel sympathy for others. Empathy, however, is quite different. To have empathy, one has to actually be able to relate to what the other is feeling and share it. It’s a pretty big difference. The poverty simulator helped me to better understand something of the reality that people in poverty face and to empathize, and that has, in turn, helped me be better at my work in my nonprofit and to just be better.
Today, I had the opportunity to do another simulator, this time to simulate what things are like for a person being released from jail. This, I may add, had never really even crossed my mind until a few years ago. Up until then, I, like most of us, didn’t really give much thought to jail, because, again, for most of us, jail is a foreign concept to us. We know it’s there, and we have some vague notions about it, but we don’t really understand much about it. Having learned a bit about it, both before and as a result of this simulator, I’ll tell you that we really should pay more attention to that whole process than we do, for lots of very practical reasons. The process of release from incarceration is generally referred to as “re-entry”, which is a really good and telling term for it. “Re-entry” means re-entry into the society, because when a person is incarcerated, they are purposefully removed from society. That’s sort of the point of jails. However, we should give some thought to what that actually means. Incarcerating a person both punishes them for doing whatever they did and protects the rest of us against them doing it again. Ideally, as a result of the incarceration, the person will learn the error of their ways and not do things after they are released that might get them sent back. That may be the ideal, but the reality is that, for most people, it doesn’t really work that way. Seventy-seven percent of federal inmates are back in prison within 5 years of getting out. Almost half within a year. Kentucky has a very high rate of incarceration—one of the highest rates of any state in the country, and since the US has a higher incarceration rate than any other developed country, that means Kentucky has more people in jail, per capita, than just about anywhere else on the planet. Having said that, the recidivism rate is Kentucky has been going down in the last few years. In 2017, almost 45% of people released from jail or prison in Kentucky were back in jail within two years. In 2021, that rate had dropped to a little over 29%. That’s still a lot, but obviously it’s a lot better than 45%. There are lots of reasons for the drop, but a lot of it is, undoubtedly, due to the state Department of Corrections implementing a new agency called the Division of Re-entry Services that provides help to people being released from state prisons. It’s amazing how something as simple as being able to get a state ID card can have a huge effect on someone being released.
The Re-entry Simulator is sponsored by that new Division of Re-entry Services. The simulator today was also supported by RiverValley Behavioral Health, out of Owensboro, which is the community behavioral health center that serves the northwestern counties in the Owensboro region. Today, I became Wesley for a couple hours. Wesley was released from a 10-year sentence in state prison for bank robbery and using a firearm during a felony. I almost put Wesley’s file back to choose another, because I didn’t think “playing” him was going to be as useful as I hoped. You see, when you start the simulator, you are given an identity with certain characteristics. Some have stable homes, some are homeless. Some have jobs, some don’t. Most “people” in the simulation have substance use issues because most people in jail have substance use issues. I almost put Wesley back because he looked too “easy”. According to my file, Wesley had a state ID, a birth certificate and a social security card. As I mentioned, not having ID is HUGE for a lot of people facing challenges, not just people on re-entry. It’s a big issue for the homeless, the aged and many others in poverty. Anyway, Wesley also had a full-time job and was living with his wife in a relatively affordable apartment, paying $500 a month for rent and utilities. This all made Wesley seem like he should be able to get through the simulator with very little trouble, so I thought I might switch, but I didn’t. Wesley it would be for the next month.
I got into trouble almost at the beginning. Although I had a job, I didn’t start with any money at the beginning of week one, because I was broke. I just had a few transportation tokens to get to the various resources and other things I would need, like the grocery, AA/NA meetings, drug testing, work, etc. I decided to sell some blood plasma to get some money ($25). That’s actually a thing. I did it a few times in college. You can’t sell blood, but you can sell plasma. You can also only donate blood once every two months, but you can donate plasma twice a week. I went to the plasma place (which cost me one of my transportation tokens), but they rejected me because I was under the influence. Next day, I went to get drug tested, so I could go to work. I had to show a clean test to be allowed to work. Cost me another token, but I passed. I went to work. They check my ID and I had to give them five tokens to cover my transportation. That only left me with one transportation token left. I did however, get paid my $320 for the week. I went to the bank to cash my check (cost me my last token, but I was able to purchase some more for $1 each. I got ten. I went to get some groceries and the simulated week (lasting about 12 minutes) was over. At the end of each week, the people running the simulator give you a “HOME” card, which gives you something related to daily life. My card told me that I had to go get one of those quicky loans for $200 to help pay the rent. So, at the beginning of week two, I went to the pawn shop/loan place and got my loan at about 20% interest per week. Then I went to get drug tested and I failed the test, so I couldn’t go to work. Tried the plasma thing again and this time I was anemic. No $25, but I lost another transport token. This week, I had to go to the courthouse to pay my $200 in child support, which I did. Then I went to pay the rent, but I couldn’t because it was $500 and I only had $485. I tried the plasma thing again, but it was no-go, again. Tried to go to work and couldn’t, because I didn’t have a clean drug test. I remembered that I had to go to my NA meeting, so I did that, then I got arrested, because I forgot to pay the interest on the quicky loan. Getting out of jail cost me $345, for the loan and court fees, which left me with about $10, which wasn’t enough to get food for the week. I went to the food stamp office (another token) to apply for food stamps, but I was denied, because I made too much money. I told her that I hadn’t been able to work in two weeks, but that didn’t matter, based on my work history. And so on. At the end of the four weeks of the simulation, I had never actually paid my rent (although I got away with it, because the landlord gave me a break (actually the person playing the landlord messed up and marked me “paid” before I realized I only had $485. I was lucky that I only had to see my probation officer once a month, but I wasn’t able to do that, because I didn’t have the money for the $30 fee. I was also just about to get thrown back in jail by the quicky loan people when the simulation ended.
My imaginary four weeks as Wesley were a nightmare, even though I had a pretty good start, with a job, my IDs, and housing. I wasn’t even able to buy groceries in the last week. It was just a short simulation, but, like the poverty simulator I did before, it was very eye-opening. Even though I was in pretty good shape, I couldn’t make a go of it. Yeah, you might say that failing my drug tests and not being able to work were my own fault, but if you knew anyone who is dealing or has dealt with addiction, you wouldn’t be so quick to say that. Most people who go to jail with a substance problem come out of jail with a substance problem. We need to do better with that. Most people who come out of jails, particularly county jails, have little or no support upon release. The state Division of Re-entry Services that I mentioned before is for state prisoners. Those resources aren’t always available at the local level, so we release people from jail, putting them out on the streets, still dealing with substance use disorder, often going back into the same environment they came out of when they were arrested, and we expect a different result. The state program is a pretty good indicator that re-entry services work. I can tell you, after a month of being Wesley, getting out is a whole lot easier than staying out.
Whether incarceration and re-entry is something you think about or not, it is important to our communities. Keeping people in jail is expensive. It costs $25-45,000 a year to keep someone in jail. That doesn’t count the cost of the policing and the courts and all that. Then there is the opportunity cost, which is what the person could have contributed to the economy if they were not in jail and working. That’s another $30,000 at reasonable wages. It’s a lot. It just makes sense to do the things that can be done to help people re-join productive society. It makes sense for people coming out of jail, it makes sense for people with substance issues, it makes sense for people with treatable medical disabilities and it makes sense for people in poverty. It just costs less to help these people rise above whatever is holding them back than it does to continue to pay for the consequences of doing nothing.
The good news is that there are lots of successful approaches to these issues already being applied in places just like western Kentucky. We don’t have to start from scratch. We can adapt things that are already working and use them here. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better.