Reentry Simulation Fosters Empathy in Students

Reentry Simulation Fosters Empathy in Students

A Reentry Simulation designed to teach 11th graders about the difficulties faced by people recently released from prison sparked feelings of frustration, sadness, and loneliness among participants. But most importantly, according to a post-field trip survey, the simulation fostered a significant increase in empathy for those reintegrating into society. The juniors were the first high schoolers in the country to take part in the simulation.

Taking on unique identities, students spent the morning visiting stations—or tables manned by volunteers and trained 12th-grade SCH volunteers—in the Middle School. The juniors encountered a variety of challenges mirroring those faced by formerly incarcerated individuals. Equipped with a "life card" and a "wallet," they navigated obtaining IDs, accessing social services, securing food and transportation, managing bills, and even facing the possibility of returning to jail, reflecting our nation’s high recidivism rate.

One junior expressed frustration at the long line to obtain an ID and fill out lengthy forms, only to return to the line to hand in a form that he wasn’t confident was entirely correct. Meanwhile, he was handed a “wild card” by a facilitator telling him he owed $20 to a friend, depleting his already small pocket of bills and highlighting the financial pressures faced by those reentering society. Several participants admitted to giving up and going back to jail due to debt or other circumstances beyond their control.

This innovative in-house field trip, previously exclusive to college students and people working in justice fields, was developed by the U.S. Attorney's Office. The simulation is offered in partnership with the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and PAR-Recycle Works. The experience included talks from those leading the simulation and the morning wrapped up with a debriefing session in which students reflected on the experience and how it might compare to reality.

The simulation complemented the students' American Stories curriculum, which included reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and analyzing the docuseries College Behind Bars.

“Although this simulation may be fleeting for our kids, for many people in our society, the collateral consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system may cause them significant hardships for many years, and even for the rest of their lives,” says English teacher Colleen DiDonato. “Lessons learned in this simulation can create awareness about the barriers to reentry, change perceptions about the criminal justice system, deepen empathy, and inspire our youth to make positive change.”

Reentry Simulation April 2024


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