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South Dakota simulation explores pitfalls of reentry after prison

The South Dakota National Guard Armory recently hosted an event in which 50 participants played the role of a person just leaving prison. The challenges they encountered taught the community about the difficulties former inmates face after serving their sentences. 

Simulation participants wait in line to get mock driver's licenses and other documents on April 27, 2018 at the South Dakota National Guard Armory in Rapid City, S.D. The group was a mix of students, probation officers, nonprofit representatives, and relatives of prison inmates.
Chris Huber/Rapid City Journal/AP
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  • Tiffany Tan
    Associated Press

In the span of about an hour April 27, a man had robbed a bank, got thrown in jail, bonded out, distributed illegal drugs and robbed another bank. He got away with the last two offenses and made money, too.

After another hour, he ended up back in jail, along with dozens of people who participated in a simulation of the challenges faced by people who have just been released from prison.

The Rapid City Journal reports that during the three-hour activity in the auditorium of the South Dakota National Guard Armory on Range Road, the 50 participants were assigned to play the role of a person who had just come out of state or federal prison.

They were each given a packet describing the prison background of their persona and a list of what they were court-ordered to accomplish each week. They also got varying amounts of startup money and, if they were lucky, a type of official identification. The general goal was to earn enough money to make rent, buy food and pay for public transportation while going to treatment or substance abuse testing.

Around 30 stations had been set up to represent institutions that people deal with in real life: the workplace, supermarket, bank, payday lender, social services, blood bank, probation office and jail.

Most of the participants were criminal justice students from Western Dakota Tech and Black Hills State University, but they also included probation officers, people who work in nonprofit organizations and the relatives of men and women currently in prison.

During the exercise, the participants' most commonly expressed sentiment was frustration. They could hardly get anything done – like get a job, cash a check or get social assistance – since many didn't have a valid identification card.

There was a booth where they could get their birth certificate, Social Security card, state ID or driver's license for $15 a pop. But lines were often long, people didn't have enough money or they first needed to get one document to obtain another.

"That's the main thing that holds you back when you get out, the ID," said Krista Olson, a volunteer who operated the supermarket booth. Olson is speaking from experience. She's on parole after serving time in state prison and is reintegrating into society with the help of a Rapid City nonprofit, Passages Women's Transitional Living.

To survive without an ID, the persona played by Western Dakota Tech student Tom Gioia decided to go to the "chance" booth. There, participants can choose to commit a crime and hope the card they pick will pay off with cash rather than land them in jail. Gioia's persona was the man who went to jail for a robbery, but got away with another robbery and a drug crime.

One female participant apparently thought it was easier to survive in jail, where necessities such as food and medical services were free. Immediately after bonding out, she went straight to pick out a crime card that got her locked back up.

Shawen Stolz, a probation officer in Rapid City, said joining the exercise helped him gain new insights into the systemic difficulties that former inmates continually face.

"You think you understand, but you can't," Stolz said. "You really have to live it."

The simulation, the first of its kind in South Dakota, was organized by the Rapid City Re-entry Task Force made up of local, state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. It was designed to raise community awareness, and the task force is hoping to hold simulations regularly, said Daniel Kivi, a co-organizer representing the US Attorney's Office.

One of the task force's major goals is to advocate a state law that would provide a free, temporary valid ID to all people leaving prison, said Passages director Marge Beam. The idea is to give former inmates more time to obtain permanent IDs at the same time that they're rebuilding their lives outside prison.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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