Too many obstacles face former inmates

Amber Duke
Amber Duke

I recently spent time in jail, bought food-assistance vouchers with cash below the voucher’s face value, asked strangers for bus tickets, and had to get food from a food pantry to avoid going two weeks without eating.

These experiences came through a reentry simulation hosted by the Greater Louisville Reentry Coalition. Simulation notwithstanding, the two hours I spent trying to navigate the obstacle course we set up for Kentuckians reentering our communities after serving time in jail or prison were two of the more stressful hours of my entire year.

The experience raised important questions:

What would it look like if everyone coming out of prison or jail had state identification before they stepped foot out the door?

How can we accommodate Kentuckians from rural areas without transportation or access to mass transit to make all of their required appointments?

When people have setbacks as they adjust to life in the community, what would it look like if they were paired with a social worker instead of being sent back to jail?

During the exercise, my name was Sherman. I had served three years in state prison for burglary. I left jail with a CD player valued at $50, $20 cash, three transportation tickets, a birth certificate, and a Social Security card.

I was “lucky,” because I had reliable monthly income of $710 from a disability check (distributed in the second week of the simulation). My housing situation was unstable; as I was staying with a significant other that I met through a prison pen pal and their two children.

Simulation participants are given a card with tasks to complete over the course of four weeks. A timer was set and participants had to visit booths set up around the room to complete the tasks. It cost one transportation ticket each time we arrived at a booth.

There were general rules: You must have food each week; you must visit your probation officer the first and third weeks; you must attend treatment or counseling the second and fourth weeks.

I studied my first week tasks before the buzzer rang. In 20 minutes, I would need to visit my probation officer ($30), buy groceries for the week ($25), and undergo a urinalysis ($5).

You can see the instant dilemma I faced: $20 cash on hand and required tasks that would cost $60. I bolted to the pawn shop with my CD player. I was turned away because I needed a state ID.

I hopped into the line for the DMV and was able to secure identification because I had my birth certificate and Social Security card. Other participants didn’t have these documents and were being turned away.

I returned to the pawn shop and received less than half of the value of my CD player. I was going to visit my probation officer when I realized I was already out of transportation tickets. I was stuck. I ended up begging people in line to sell me a ticket from them. A kind soul gave me one and I ran toward my probation officer, but the buzzer sounded.

When my task sheet was checked, I stammered trying to explain my challenges, but was sent back to jail for the start of week two. I was released due to overcrowding, but had little time to complete my week two tasks.

Over the rest of the month, I found myself buying a food voucher from another participant who was in need of cash to see her probation officer because I didn’t have time to stand in the long grocery line and complete my other tasks.

I went to treatment and drew a card that said I was 15 minutes late and therefore unable to get credit for attending that week. After the third week, I returned to my chair to find a note that the person I was living with needed me to purchase $40 worth of cleaning supplies. The challenges went on and on.

It was beyond the scope of the simulation, but how does a person navigate the basic tasks we were assigned on top of things like working to reunite with their children, pursuing their education, or even catching up on technology that has advanced while one has served time?

Most people want to do the right thing and keep their lives on track. What if we stopped punishing them after they’ve served their time?

Amber Duke of Louisville works for the ACLU of Kentucky. Reach her at adwritesforhl@gmail.com