Facing Barriers Returning from Prison

Jason Lee


Participants in the Returning Prisoner Simulation

The United States is the most prison-dependent country in the world. There are over two million prisoners in the U.S., with several million more on probation or parole. Wisconsin state prisons house 22,000 people alone, with 68,000 more on probation and community supervision in the state.

Despite the U.S. record of mass incarceration, almost everyone who goes to prison (95%) gets out.

The reentry process can be full of anxiety, uncertainty, and roadblocks that make all but recidivism unlikely.

That was the context on a recent  Friday when almost 100 social work students, staff, and faculty took part in a returning prisoner simulation. The simulation, created and organized by Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), places participants in the role of someone recently released from prison trying to navigate a return to the world outside. Given a to-do list that includes contact with a parole officer, securing housing and a job, taking care of medical needs, and finding clothing, participants experience in microcosm, the difficulty of navigating complex and at times contradictory systems to reentry.

“The feeling of having to ask someone for help and admitting that you need help was really strong. There were people who turned you away and said, ‘no you need to go do something else,’ and then there were also people who were compassionate,” said Tori Bruch, an MSW student who took part in the simulation.

The activity helps explain why so many people end up back in prison. Nationally, the recidivism rate is 60-65%. After just an hour of playing the role of a returning prisoner, many students understood that all too often, the process was nearly impossible to complete.

“My experience throughout this was filled with anxiety, pressure, and frustration because as I was reading everything I needed to do, it felt like a lot and I couldn’t imagine actually having to deal with it,” said Aracely Becerra, a senior BSW student.

The goal of the simulation is to give participants an “up close” view of what it can be like for someone to return home from prison.

“As students preparing to practice in the field—be it in micro- or macro-level contexts, this provides them with an opportunity to reflect on their practice and to consider the strategies they can use to best support those in reentry,” says Assistant Professor Pajarita Charles.

Pajarita Charles (at lectern) and Shawna Lutzow of Madison-area Urban Ministry
Pajarita Charles (at lectern) and Shawna Lutzow of Madison-area Urban Ministry

Pajarita Charles (at lectern) and Shawna Lutzow of Madison-area Urban Ministry

Charles, along with Field Faculty Associate Stephen Tupper coordinated with MUM to bring the simulation to the School of Social Work. “The simulation is especially valuable for social work students who interact with clients and community members every day who are likely to be directly or indirectly impacted by the criminal justice system in some way,” she said.

MUM assists individuals returning to Dane County after incarceration and works to dismantle barriers that returning prisoners face. MUM also supports families of people incarcerated. Through its various programs, including the Returning Prisoner Simulation and Just Bakery – an educational and vocational training program, the recidivism rate for individuals involved in MUMs programming is just 10%, far below the national average.

Tupper had several goals for students taking part in the event. “The first was to provide a graphic understanding and learning experience for Criminal Justice Field Seminar students about the challenges men and women face reintegrating into the community when they return from prison,” Tupper said. He wanted students in the Criminal Justice Seminar to work on a project together and with the entire school. He also, “wanted to raise awareness in the school of some of the challenges social workers encounter when working in the criminal justice field,” he said.

Following the role-play, students heard from a panel of individuals who shared their own stories of returning home from prison.

“Equally important to learning about the substantial challenges that people face after prison are the stories from returning citizens of what has gone well and what or who made a difference in their lives,” said Charles. “We must hear these voices and invite these narratives to help inform our social work practice and social policy decisions. For participants generally, I believe it is a practical and yet emotionally moving experience that touches people in a variety of ways,” she explained.

The connection to the lived experiences of individuals and the impact it has on families and communities was apparent.

Kortney Karnok is a student in the Part-Time MSW Program and the Advocacy and Program Manager for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Rock County. She was interested in the event because, “many of the families we work with have a parent or parents who are, or have been, incarcerated,” she said.

“As I train community volunteers to advocate for children in the child welfare system, it is important to understand the challenges these parents face…in order to work effectively in the best interest of children, it is necessary to recognize bias against parents, especially incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parents, and to mitigate the harsh and critical judgment that is typically thrust upon them.”

For Charles, whose work focuses on intervention to improve outcomes for high risk children and families affected by the criminal justice system, the connection and importance of the simulation to the School of Social Work is obvious. “Our interest in bringing the Returning Prisoner Simulation to the School of Social Work was sparked by the underlying intersection of social work practice, social welfare policy, and the criminal justice system,” she says.

The School of Social Work’s participation in the Returning Prisoner Simulation aligns with one of the Grand Challenges of Social Work – to “promote smart decaceration.” The initiative, spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare, aims to enhance social progress informed by science.

As the day progressed, students became more eager to complete tasks even as their frustration grew. Their inability to navigate obstacles became more obvious as the stress of moving from one assignment to the next piled up. In the end, few students had secured housing or a job, and one student decided it was easier to sit in jail than to attempt to complete the tasks of reentry.

“I would tell others that participating in this event is a worthwhile exercise to develop awareness of issues impacting a huge number of people in our communities,” Karnok said.  “This is particularly valuable for social workers; however, I believe all community members would benefit from taking the time to consider the plight of others.”

For Charles, the simulation emphasized the enormity of barriers faced by people involved in our criminal justice system and the work social workers and society face. “It is the connection with individuals who share stories of injustice, discrimination, disempowerment and the barriers experienced in reentry that are most important, reminding me always of the significant work that lies ahead to undo the effects of mass incarceration in the U.S.”


The School thanks Madison attorneys Dean Strang of Strang Bradley LLC, and Steve Hurley of Hurley Burish SC, who provided funding for the Simulation.