The United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world, with more than 75% of prisoners being rearrested within five years of release. This was a fact shared by Ashley Lough on Tuesday evening during a Reentry Simulation event, sponsored by the WVU Honors College and Honors College Living-Learning Community, WVU School of Public Health and the WVU Reed College of Media Martin Hall Agency.
Lough, the prevention and reentry coordinator for the Northern West Virginia District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, led the reentry simulation for WVU students from nearly a dozen units on campus, ranging from Public Health and Social Work to Media and Political Science to Law and Criminology. Each attendee was given a packet that included a “Life Card” which listed living expenses and court ordered appointments, varying amounts of money, transportation tickets and cards signifying possessions and their worth. Some, but not all, packets also included identification cards like a Social Security card, birth certificate or state ID.
During the simulation, students had four 15-minute sessions (each representing a week) to navigate a series of stations to accomplish the items listed on their respective life cards. Stations included rent and food assistance, church (food bank, NA/AA meetings and clothes), probation, quick loans, pawn shop, plasma donation, court, career support and even a station that allowed them to take a chance with crime. Attendees could also find themselves back in jail for not meeting the terms of their parole, committing crimes or other similar infractions.
"While struggling to complete all my weekly tasks during the simulation, I realized that it would almost be easier to go sit in the jail room,” said Max Russell, a junior College of Media student who participated in the event. “My eyes were opened to the unbelievable struggle that people face when reentering society after incarceration, and my heart breaks after seeing how returning to prison becomes such an enticing option for them.”
This is the second time Lough has facilitated the reentry simulation at the WVU Media Innovation Center. The first was for business, government and community members as part of Women Beyond Bars, a two-year journalism and advocacy project led by faculty and students in the WVU Reed College of Media and funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to investigate the causes and effects of the mass incarceration of women in West Virginia. Geah Pressgrove, associate professor and chair of public relations and advertising at the WVU Reed College of Media, and Audra Hamrick, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies at the WVU School of Public Health, were integral to the planning and execution of the first event, and Damien Clement, associate dean of the WVU Honors College, was a participant who came away with a new perspective on incarceration and recidivism.
“I had never personally known someone who was incarcerated, but momentarily walking in their shoes and seeing the struggles they face upon release gave me a whole new sense of compassion and understanding,” Clement said. “After participating in that first simulation, I felt like it was an important lesson that should be shared with students.”
Pressgrove is a faculty leader for Martin Hall Agency, WVU’s student-run Advertising and Public Relations agency. MHA is part of an interdisciplinary collaborative that was recently awarded a grant from the WVU Provost’s Office to create a similar simulation that will explore the challenges faced by marginalized communities as they seek healthcare.
“The reentry simulation served two purposes for our students,” Pressgrove said. “First, it raised more awareness of an important issue in our communities that helped students feel more empathy for the formerly incarcerated population. Second, it was a demonstration of a successful simulation, which we hope to emulate through the upcoming MHA project.”