On April 9, 2015, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre was abuzz with a few hundred theatergoers from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area in attendance for the performance Lights Rise on Grace , a Chad Beckim play. It was billed as a night of theatre and candid social justice discussion co-hosted by Woolly Mammoth and Mission: Launch.
Prior to the performance, members of the Woolly Mammoth staff, took great care and concern in creating activity stations within the theatre’s atrium. These stations were based on the major themes of the play – apology/forgiveness, family and incarceration. Specifically, related to the theme of incarceration, the co-hosting organizations developed an interactive and detailed game which laid spread out across the atrium’s floor.
“The Game of Life - After Conviction” was an obstacle course of sorts presenting theatregoers with many of the real challenges people living with criminal convictions and/or transitioning home from prison encounter (e.g. homelessness, unemployment, home confinement, social stigmas and transportation issues). Advancing through the game was appropriately propelled by the roll of the dice since so much of the shaping of the futures of the criminally convicted/formerly incarcerated occurs by chance versus systematic design.
Typically the post prison, return journey is referred to as “re-entry.” Interestingly and understandably, re-entry is the same term used for spacecraft and astronauts outer space return into Earth’s atmosphere. It leaves one to wonder why these, seemingly, unrelated processes would use the same term. Please understand that in actuality they are very similar – leaving one atmosphere and abruptly being reintroduced to your original environment which has become distant and unfamiliar. Re-entry is one of the most dangerous and delicate challenges for an astronaut and spacecraft to encounter, because their safe return is not guaranteed. If handled incorrectly, re-entry from outer space and the prison industrial complex can result in disaster.
It was enlightening to observe participants fully engaged in this modified game of life related to re-entry. We overheard the comments and conversations from a variety of viewpoints, as they pondered real life impediments and experienced frustration with the struggles and the setbacks encountered while trying to achieve successful re-entry. It all depended on the roll of the dice and where they landed. There were noted comments like: “this is almost impossible,” “I don’t know if I’d have the tenacity to hit all of these insurmountable roadblocks and keep trying,” “are there really all of these detours and setbacks?” and “this is messing with my head.” Many voiced their realization that they were looking at a portion of a broken criminal justice system, which has placed too much emphasis on mass incarceration, with very little thought being given to the redemptive rebuilding of lives. It is a system that has recently gained much bipartisan support in being overhauled and revamped.
Post-performance, Teresa Hodge, a co-founder of the Mission: Launch organization, moderated a Q&A panel discussion of formerly incarcerated persons. Audience members joined in with questions and comments related to re-entry while firsthand accounts were shared by panelists.
In addition to the moderator and contributor, Ms. Hodge, the panel consisted of her Just Leadership USA “Leading with Conviction 2015” cohorts William “Bill” Cobb, the Founder of Redeemed PA, and Evie Litwok, the Director of Ex-Offender Nation. Entrepreneur and Advocate, Chris Wilson was also featured, as well as Ryan Ryskamp, Founder of Opportunity Of and a Mission: Launch entrepreneurial fellow. Service providers Derwin Overton, Executive Director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Fairfax County, and Gore Bolton, Founder of Orange Steam, addressed the ways their organizations provide workforce development training to formerly convicted people and then connect them with subsequent “sustainable employment.”
Feedback from the event indicated that a level of awareness and consciousness appears to have been raised as attendees were exposed to the plight and hardships of people who continue to struggle, despite having satisfied all legal requirements of their criminal convictions. Thoughts were also voiced about the desire to become actively engaged in innovative solutions that simplify and streamline the re-entry process.
Mission: Launch serves as the managing member and fiscal sponsor of the Rebuilding Re-entry Coalition. If you are interested in learning more about the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, please visit www.rebuilldingreentry.com.