On his way to sell plasma to make ends meet, Lawrence Rosario was arrested for violating his parole and put in jail, unable to pay his $100 bail.
Luckily for Rosario, his woes were fictional.
Rosario, a senior legal studies major, along with about 90 other registered students and faculty, spent Friday afternoon on the seventh floor of Alter Hall participating in the simulation event “Get Ready, Get Set, Get Out: A Day in the Life of a Returning Citizen, A Reentry Simulation” that would show them the hardships formerly incarcerated men and women face when they reenter society.
The event was sponsored by the legal studies department and the human resources management department at the Fox School of Business, along with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and JEVS Human Services, a non-profit, social service agency based in Philadelphia which aims to enhance its clients’ employability and self-sufficiency.
Jeffrey Boles, the chair of the legal studies department, and Andrea Lopez, human resources professor, planned the event over the span of a few months, Boles said. Jeffrey Abramowitz, the executive director of reentry services at JEVS, came to Lopez and told her about the simulation Lopez said. The inspiration for the event came from the simulation being featured at the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management conference.
“I teach human resources so my students are going to be training people who are reentering, so it’s really important for them to see what they go through,” Lopez said. “It’s important to open our minds to them and into the challenges that they face so that we know that they’re just like us.”
Each year, 25,000 people are released from prison in Philadelphia and 3 percent of the city’s population is on probation at any given time, according to the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation. Within a year of their release, 33.9 percent of people were re-arrested in Philadelphia in 2015.
“We wanted students to experience an opportunity to stand in the shoes of someone who is reentering society, and to experience a realistic possible sense of what it’s like,” Boles said.
Participants in the simulation received new identities, with bank accounts, social security cards, and a criminal record. The new identity also came with a list of tasks that students were expected to complete, like visiting their parole officer, paying child support, and finding a job.
Due to the struggle and frustration students faced during the simulation, participants began to understand just how many obstacles formerly incarcerated people face as they navigate a society they’re no longer familiar with.
“I now have a deeper understanding of the way life really doesn’t cooperate with people,” Rosario said. “Despite your best efforts, it’s really still such a struggle.”
Julie Mathews, a junior legal studies major and criminal justice minor, said the all-too-real event left her with lingering anxiety.
“It was definitely a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Mathews said. “It felt very real in the moment.”
While the simulation might’ve felt real in the moment, Abramowitz reminded the room of participants that there is even more reality to what they experienced during the simulation.
“The irony is every single person that underwent this simulation today, if you had been on the street you would’ve found yourself in a parole office or back somewhere inside the criminal justice system again and possibly behind bars,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz concluded the session by advising the crowd that in order to change the narrative of reentry, we need to start a dialogue with one another.
“The reality is that we need to have this discussion among all of society,” Abramowitz said. “It is a mindset, and it’s a matter of taking social responsibility for what’s happening in our society, and then engaging. Everyone in this room has something they could do.”
While this was the first time Fox has hosted an event like this, Lopez said she hopes this can continue in the years to come.
“We’d love it to turn into a yearly thing,” Lopez added. “We’ve generated all of this energy and awareness, and awareness starts with events like these.”