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Life Inside

Freaky Friday, Prison-Style

At a Kentucky prison, inmates and staff switch places during a “re-entry to society” role-playing game.

No one knew what we were signing up for, but we volunteered for the “re-entry-to-society simulator” at our Kentucky prison regardless.

When the day came, we filed into a large room.

“Take a seat at one of the tables, any table. That will be your ‘occupation’ for the next hour—so find something fitting, guys,” said the re-entry program administrator, a red-haired woman acting as our new boss. “You’ll find instructions in your packet. And don’t steal any of the pens or markers!”

“Damn,” said a prisoner beside me. “I could really use a new pen.”

After sitting down, I opened my packet and glanced inside. The instructions were simple: I’d chosen the role of a “service worker” at the “plasma donation” station. (This is a common way for ex-prisoners to make money after getting out.) All I had to do to get into character was make sure all my potential customers did three things: provide personal I.D., pay a travel ticket—the simulator’s form of currency, allowing them to use each station, much like a bus token—and pick a card from my deck.

Each of the cards had one of six labels: anemic, new piercing, new tattoo, been drinking, fever and, lastly, “clear to donate.”

If someone drew that card, I was to give them $25 in fake dollars and remind them of the plasma center's twice-a-week-only donation policy. If they were rejected for one of the five other reasons, they could try once more later in the game.

Once I’d gotten set up, I looked out at the other inmates seated at their stations: bank, food stamps, probation and parole, housing, court, transportation, I.D. and the guy beside me, employment. They all wore the same perplexed, surreal expression.

We were all clearly at a loss as to our purpose in this place.

“I’m supposed to make people work?” asked the guy from employment. “Doing what? I’m an inmate.”

The red-haired administrator faced us down with her no-nonsense gaze. “Your jobs are described in the instructions. Read them, understand them, but most of all, have fun. For the time being, you’re an employer.”

That was it for direction. Now it was time to start ushering into the simulator a 30-member pool of “recently-released prisoners”—played by our prison’s deputy wardens, captains and officers. They all entered the room every bit as clueless as we’d been, dumbstruck at being made to be convicts.

“Prison staff, there are chairs in the center of the room,” the administrator said next. “Find one, and stick to it. You will be given a dossier containing your new identity as an ex-felon. Read it, embrace it and comply with the conditions of your probation and parole plan. Or else … ”

The “or else” meant go back to jail, but of course these officers didn’t really know what going back to jail feels like.

My co-worker at the plasma table leaned over and said, “Look at them. They couldn’t find their asses with GPS assistance.”

Suddenly another re-entry simulator administrator, a stern-looking man, stood up and explained even more rules: “There will be four 15-minute rounds. Each round is a ‘week’ of freedom. You’ll be given the same chances available to the inmates you release from here everyday and will be treated exactly the same as they are. Have fun,” he reiterated.

The warden of our prison smiled at us all from over in the corner, where he was overseeing everything.

“Begin,” said the stern administrator.

A funny thing happened then: All the staff-turned-ex-cons sat around looking like they needed more instructions. They couldn’t possibly be expected to comply with so little direction, could they?

“The clock’s ticking,” said the red-head. “Do you guys want to go to jail?”

Soon a deputy warden shot over to my table and said, “I need money. Give it.”

I asked for her I.D and travel card. She didn't have her I.D.

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Her name tag read: Tom.

She held out her hand and stared at me.

“Tom, I’m sorry, you can’t donate plasma without an I.D.,” I said, shaking my head, not without some pleasure.

“I can’t donate? This is bullshit!” She stalked off angrily.

The next officer-turned-ex-con who approached my table drew a card saying that he unfortunately has a new piercing. The next had a new tattoo, a fever, anemic, tattoo, fever—you get the picture. The more irate they became at their lot in life as returning prisoners, the worse their chances of drawing the right card—since I was drawing for them, and I’d placed all the good ones on the bottom of the stack.

“It says I can donate! Yes! Yes!” cried one officer who’d always been fair with me, after I drew her a good card. “I need cash so I can pay for my baby-mama’s new car!”

“New car?” I asked.

“Child support,” she said, before running off to the child-support table.

In a microcosm kind of way, I guess the simulator did represent the experience that many newly released ex-felons face upon reentry. The idea was to provide a strange dose of insight to all who participated, staff and inmates alike.

As I watched a certain deputy warden stoop to cheating the system (by palming her “clear to donate” card and using it multiple times), and as I pretended not to notice a certain senior captain use a marker from the employment table to surreptitiously check off all the requirements he needed to prevent his third trip to jail, the real lesson of the simulator became clear. Demonstrate to the staff who work with us in here the stress, feelings of hopelessness and seemingly insurmountable mountain of obstacles that the average newly-released individual faces and the lengths we go to survive. So that maybe they can empathize and do their jobs better.

And it worked.

“Damn it! Seriously? I did nearly everything right,” said one officer on his way to “jail.”

“Cheat. It’s easier,” said another. “They catch us, we go to jail. But if they don’t … ”

“It’s like this was designed for us to fail,” said another. “What are we supposed to do?”

An officer finally smiled as she came over to my table and waited for me to pick her card. It was her second donation of the week. “Can a girl get lucky?” she said.

I drew her card. She’d been “drinking.” No donation. “Sorry.”

She sighed, but took it in stride.

By the end of week four, nearly all of the staff had visited jail more than once. The simulation was over, but their frustration was very much apparent in every hunched-over back, frown and pair of downcast eyes. No one liked being segregated. No one liked failure.

“Personally, I found jail easier than the hassle of compliance,” said the warden of his prior participation in a similar simulator at another prison. “We do this because we want to change the way we look at re-entry. It doesn’t help to throw our ex-felons out into a system that doesn’t work for them or anybody else. We’ve got to do something about it. It’s our responsibility.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Derek R. Trumbo Sr., 40, is incarcerated at the Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Kentucky, where he is serving 25 years for charges stemming from the sexual abuse of a child. He has maintained his innocence in court. He is a two-time winner of PEN writing awards for his plays, which have been performed in Australia, New York City and Louisville, Kentucky.