District Attorneys are accustomed to recommending prison sentences as part of their job.
But in an unusual exercise this month, they learned what it felt like to reenter society after serving time behind bars.
The “Reentry Simulation” that took place at the Fortune Society facility in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, was intended to be a hands-on lesson in the challenges of reforming a system that many say has been distorted by the “punishment culture” of American prosecutors.
It was the final event in the three-year-long series of “Executive Session” meetings organized by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College, aimed at reimagining the role of prosecutors.
Since 2016, the Executive Session has been bringing together the foremost experts in the field of prosecution—elected prosecutors, legal professionals, scholars, policy experts, and individuals directly impacted by the justice system—for a series of facilitated conversations to develop guidance for high-level culture change.
The event, hosted by the Fortune Society, which provides a range of services to New Yorkers coming home from prison, took place in the community room of “the Castle,” as the society’s Harlem location is commonly known.
And this time the tables were turned. About a dozen prosecutors and just as many criminal justice experts faced formerly incarcerated individuals seated at tables around the room labeled Food Bank, Probation, ID Center, Transportation, Treatment, and others.
Each participant was assigned an assumed identity, which included facts relevant to the challenges of re-entry: what crime she had committed, how much money she had, what documents she possessed, and where she was expected to report each week.
The participants were given four “weeks”—each week lasting approximately 15 minutes—to accomplish all the tasks facing a person released after a long stay behind bars.
The rules were simple: Go to every place assigned to you in a week. Pay a bus ticket each time you reach a new station. Do not violate your probation.
It didn’t take long for prosecutors to come face to face with the challenges faced by thousands of assuming the roles of returning citizens each year.
It was no coincidence that the simulation occurred following the release of the tenth—and possibly the most ambitious— paper produced by the Executive Session.
The paper, co-authored by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., Fortune Society Executive Director Stan Richards, and Courtney Oliva, executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University, advocated a fundamental rethinking of the prosecutor’s job.
“The time has come for prosecutors to expand the notion of what their jobs entail,” said the paper, which called on prosecutors to expand their frame of reference to include the “back end” of the system—what happens to the individuals sent to prison who are faced with navigating the journey back to normal society.
“Public safety and community betterment are not served by ignoring what happens to people after a prosecutor obtains a sentence.”
The first step in the process of going home means dealing with an opaque and often unfriendly bureaucracy.
Within minutes, the room in the Castle echoed with complaints: “I don’t know where to begin!”
“Does anyone know where to get an ID?”
Nearly immediately, the participants were not just stumbling through; they were failing.
The formerly incarcerated staffers at each station used their own experiences to provide real-world answers to the participants when they approached each station during the accelerated-time exercise.
Accomplishing anything without an ID was almost impossible and, as is often the case in real life, a prison release ID did not do the trick.
Too Tense to Eat
The participants could not get enough bus tickets to get where they needed to go because they had no money. Almost everyone forgot to eat in the stress of checking all the right boxes.
At the conclusion of the 15-minute-long first “week” of the exercise, the participants were told to return “home” to the center of the room to discuss their first week out of prison.
A “wild card” awaited every participant at her seat: phones had been stolen, late fees were owed, medical attention was needed, or many other typical life experiences faced by those returning home.
The frustration, disappointment, and shock amongst the participants were tangible.
The DAs complained they had tried hard to complete the assigned tasks, but it felt as if the system was working against them.
“Everyone who knows me knows I am a perfectionist. I like to check all the boxes of my life,” said one. “When I began this simulation, I believed this exercise would be no different.
“Within minutes, I realized it is just impossible. And we are only going across the room. I cannot imagine how difficult it actually must be to complete these tasks in real life; but I do know we have to do something to change it.”
The Castle residents didn’t respond by saying “Welcome to our world.” But they might as well have.
In the review of the first 15-minute exercise, the residents shared stories about the real-life challenges they had faced during reentry, including destroyed social security cards, lost IDs, homelessness, missed probation meetings, and substance use relapse.
The following three “weeks” were no better. Ten people waited in a line to replace their prison IDs with state IDs—only to be turned away when it was discovered that they didn’t have their birth certificates and social security cards.
‘Arrested’ for Missing Probation
Those who missed probation the first week were “arrested” on the spot when they reported to probation during the second week.
Participants without a place to live were told they could not be considered homeless because they had previously had a place to live: prison. If participants had any money at all, the food bank could not help them.
No one completed all the tasks they were supposed to complete.
The takeaway of the exercise was clear.
Only if prosecutors take a more active role in reentry, including by easing the struggle of getting an ID, declining to enforce technical parole violations, and encouraging a focus on the success of people coming home to the community, will the system start to fulfill its rehabilitative functions, rather than simply be an instrument of punishment and despair.
“You take for granted the simple things like having an ID or being able to afford transportation,” said another DA participant. (All the participants were granted anonymity in order to speak freely.)
“Because of that, we’ve forgotten just how crucial those things are to just surviving. We have a responsibility to not forget these privileges and ensure that those just released have the help they need.”
Another prosecutor captured the hope which the simulation—and the Executive Session itself—was intended to embody.
“This exercise,” he said, “forced me to think about all the ways I can bring changes to my jurisdiction.
“Now that I am more aware of the intense struggles (that returning citizens face), I can take active steps to improve the reentry process, and listen to what my community needs.”
Shonna Carlson is a candidate for J.D. at the CUNY School, and a candidate for an MA in forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.