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'Re-Entry Simulation' Demonstrates Challenges Faced By Ex-Cons In Wash. State

Getting out of prison or jail might sound like an event to celebrate.

But it can actually be one of the most challenging times for people attempting to re-enter normal life. That’s why a local non-profit invited members of the public to an event this week at the Seattle Public Library, for what they call a “re-entry simulation.”

Seattle’s Columbia Legal Services came up with the event after seeing a similar program out of Alabama, by a group called Project Hope. The idea is to help key decision makers understand how hard it can be to re-enter society if you have a criminal record, by getting them to “walk in the shoes” of an ex-con. Participants do so by being given an identity – and then trying to navigate any number of obstacles.

“Yeah, so there are 16 stations that represent different service providers. There’s a court; there’s a church,” said Alex Bergstrom, the legal assistant with Columbia Legal Services who set up the simulation.

“And what participants do is kind of bounce around, table to table, meeting the requirements of re-entry, as explained in their individual ‘life scenarios,’ they’re called.”   

He says those scenarios are based on real-life situations, developed with the help of a focus group. One of the stations is also a morgue, for example, because sometimes the complications of navigating real life include dealing with death, or its aftermath.

“And they have a list of requirement that they need to meet – everything from drug treatment to checking in with a probation officer to paying child support, paying rent, either going to work or going to a career center to look for work.”    

He says they have limited resources. Bus passes instead of cars, for example. There’s a pawn shop for people to make money quickly if they need to.

“And the goal is essentially to not go back to jail,” Bergstrom says.

He says that’s a really hard goal. In extreme cases, even a 40-year-old conviction can prevent a person from getting a job or renting a home.

One thing that’s different with the Seattle simulation compared to the one in Alabama is the proportion of parents in the scenarios. For Washington state, four out of five people reentering society are parents, according to data collected by the group. So they want to make sure those taking part in the simulation notice that it’s not just about getting individuals back on their feet, but about their entire families.

And based on that data, the simulation is pretty much rigged to show that most of the time, it’s the truly exceptional people who are able to get back to a relatively normal situation, says Columbia Legal Services Directing Attorney Rhona Taylor. She says they’re trying to show how hard it is, in hopes of influencing people in power.

“We want to really demonstrate that most people – unfortunately, because the system works the way the system was set up – fail and are unable to really get back on their feet,” Taylor said.

Columbia Legal Services is hoping to repeat the re-entry simulation in eastern Washington and in Olympia later this year.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to