Freaky Friday, Prison-Style

The Marshall Project

By Derek R. Trumbo, Sr.

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.

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