BYRON — Many of the students at Byron High School will never know what it is like having to re-integrate into society following a stint in prison. But last week, about two dozen students got a glimpse at what that life might be like.
Teacher Tara Dunken’s criminal justice class took part in a re-entry simulation as part of their quarter-long course Thursday. The exercise was put on with the help of about a dozen employees from various places in the region, including the Federal Medical Center Rochester, the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, Workforce Development, Inc., Zumbro Valley Health Center and employees from Olmsted County.
The class covers crime, law enforcement, courts and corrections and culminates in a mock crime scene and subsequent mock trial.
In the roughly hourlong class period, the students cycled through four weeks of life post-release. The simulation helps give students a better understanding of how our country’s criminal justice system works, or doesn’t work.
“I think the kids don’t understand the difficulty of why we have criminals who keep going back to jail,” Dunken said. “If they understand those obstacles that face ex-cons, I think they are more apt to understand we may have a flaw in our system of how we deal with our criminal justice.”
Each student was given a “life card” that included information about who they were and the resources they had coming out of prison. Did they have identification? Did they have housing? What sort of court-ordered appointments and obligations would they have to fulfill?
Each “week,” everyone would have a certain set of tasks they must complete like buying food, paying rent, checking into probation and attending Alcoholics Anonymous.
To do any of those tasks, the students needed a transportation ticket, which helped illustrate the time and effort it took to accomplish anything.
Without a transportation ticket, some students, like Breanna Connelly, were stuck making less than favorable deals — trading $5 for two tickets when the tickets really only cost $1.
As students were handed out their packets, Dunken urged them to think of a game plan before setting off.
For Nick Retzer, who was given the identity of “Whitney” for the scenario, an attempt to get a job was stymied because he didn’t have the money needed for a drug test required by the employer.
After a failed attempt at selling plasma, Retzer headed off to church to fulfill his requirement of attending an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. Selecting a card from the pile of outcomes, Retzer drew one that said he was kicked out of the meeting because he showed up drunk.
“This is going horribly,” he said as he went back to try and sell plasma, this time successfully. After a few more stops, Retzer was back to the clinic for a drug test.
“I’m never going to make it through this line,” he said.
For week one, the line at the clinic may have been long but for those who were unlucky enough to draw identities without identification cards — the line to get IDs was even longer. For Connelly, who was given the identity of “Scott,” that meant spending all but three of the 15 minutes waiting to get an ID before she was able to do anything else.
With a few moments to spare, Connelly was able to get a necessary drug test.
“I can’t do anything else this week because I’m broke,” she said.
With a few moments in the week to spare, Connelly stopped at the pawn shop and sold a DVD player for $5.
As the weeks went on, some students seemed to do well while others ended up in the simulation’s jail, halfway house or homeless shelter either unable to meet their obligations or unable to provide for their basic necessities.
By the end of the scenario, seven students ended by being incarcerated, again, including Retzer.
“I felt like I did pretty much everything right, but I picked the wrong card,” he said. “I learned that it depends a lot on your scenario how well you turn out right out of jail. It can be pretty hard for some people who weren’t as advantaged as I was.”
Very few students raised their hands when asked if they felt successful. One student who was sitting in the scenario’s homeless shelter, said he felt successful because he ended with $700. Another student, sitting in the scenario’s halfway house, said he felt successful because he was able to smuggle money to a friend who was in the jail.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to learn about real life scenarios, even if you don’t find yourself in prison someday,” Connelly said. “Getting out in the real world and having to manage everything between rent, food, going to the clinic and everything, it helps you learn those real life things.”