Over the last few years, Deanna O’Malley recognized the critical need for increased empathy and support for those reentering society after incarceration. As a Community Facilitator on the Community Sustainability Team at Communities Unlimited (CU), O’Malley set up prison reentry simulators to change the public’s perspective and highlight the struggles of reentry.

Since April 2022, even before joining CU, O’Malley organized these events. One of the first simulators she put on saw attendance from a diverse group, including Judge Travis Ransom of Cass County, TX located in the T.L.L. Temple Foundation service area in the East Texas region. This experience prompted Judge Ransom to bring the simulator to his own county.

CU and Cass County partnered to launch their prison reentry simulator, holding the first one in April 2023. On May 29, 2024, the second simulator took place at the Cass County Law Enforcement Training Center with 60 people in attendance – the largest one O’Malley has ever been part of.

CU Community Facilitator Deanna O'Malley and Cass County Judge Travis Ransom
CU Community Facilitator Deanna O'Malley and Cass County Judge Travis Ransom

The simulator replicated the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated individuals as they attempt to reintegrate into society. Participants were given packets outlining their new identities as recently released inmates, complete with personal histories and weekly goals. Each 15-minute session represented a week in their new lives, filled with tasks like finding a job, paying rent, and attending mandatory appointments.

“It’s interesting to put on the shoes of someone going through the reentry process. We want our people to be successful, productive members of society. We have inmates who are released regularly, and we want to ensure they’re set up for success, so they don’t re-offend.”

Judge Travis Ransom

— Judge Travis Ransom, Cass County

The simulator ensured that participants experienced the same frustrations faced by real inmates. “You want them to be frustrated because that’s the frustration that inmates who are reentering the world feel,” O’Malley said. “We want people to understand that.”

Participants encountered obstacles like lack of transportation, difficulty obtaining necessary identification documents, and financial burdens. These barriers often led to feelings of hopelessness and desperation, mirroring the real-life struggle of many reentering society.

Judge Ransom emphasized the importance of community involvement and empathy in addressing these issues. “County government is the government closest to the people. We’re in the people business. We need to look at them as people and treat everyone with dignity and respect. We don’t need to treat inmates or formerly incarcerated individuals as second-class citizens.”

The event included representatives from various nonprofits and faith-based organizations, such as Community Services of Northeast Texas and Mission Texarkana, who played crucial roles in supporting reentry efforts. Their involvement emphasized the need for a collaborative approach to help individuals transition successfully.

“We need our judicial system, nonprofits, business owners, and landlords to see their role in making a change,” O’Malley said. “People say, ‘You do the crime, do the time.’ They’ve done the time. Now what? They face so many barriers that it becomes a revolving door.”

Judge Ransom noted the untapped potential of inmates reentering society. “There’s a big push for addressing this untapped potential in the workforce. Perceptions start to change when we realize what an untapped potential can be.”

Cass County Prison Reentry
Participants at the Cass County Prison Reentry Simulator designed to let people experience what life is like for people recently released back into society

Empathy was a key focus throughout the simulation. O’Malley emphasized the importance of controlling the level of empathy shown, as sometimes people are simply having difficult days and a little kindness can go a long way. She highlighted that being empathetic might prevent someone from giving up and returning to incarceration.

Judge Ransom’s approach was practical and empathetic. He shared the financial burden on taxpayers for inmate healthcare, emphasizing the need to help individuals better their lives to reduce these costs. “Cass County alone paid a million dollars in healthcare insurance for those in our jail,” Ransom said. “You’re costing yourself as a taxpayer money for not trying to help them better their lives.”

The prison reentry simulator serves as a powerful tool for changing perceptions and fostering empathy, while highlighting the significant challenges faced by formerly incarcerated individuals and the critical role of community support in their successful reintegration. This initiative, Judge Ransom says, is a step towards creating a more understanding and supportive community.

In the words of O’Malley, “We need to look at the issues that people are currently facing and figure out what we can do to make changes to our system.” She later added that individuals who rebuild their lives reduce recidivism and foster a more inclusive and empathetic society.