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Augustana hosts reentry simulation

As part of its mission to prepare career-ready students through transformational community engagement opportunities, Augustana College and the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP) will host a reentry simulation Wednesday, March 13. 

Dr. Sharon Varallo
Dr. Sharon Varallo

Up to 100 students and nearly 30 volunteers will engage in the simulation that highlights the struggles and challenges faced by individuals who are transitioning from incarceration back into their communities.

The event will be from 1:30-4 p.m. in Augustana’s Gerber Center, 3435 9 1/2 Ave., Rock Island. While the event is free and open to the public, seats are limited and registration is required. Members of the public should contact Bonnie Jessee, APEP administrative and reentry assistant, to register:

“This short simulation offers participants the chance to step into someone else’s shoes. To actually experience the bureaucracy, barriers and permanent punishments that impede successful reintegration — and that too often lead to reincarceration.”

Dr. Sharon Varallo

APEP Executive Director Dr. Sharon Varallo said participants in the reentry simulation receive a fictional identity and situation based on real-life situations.. Participants are tasked with deciding what to do to get their lives on track while staying clear of trouble that could send them back to prison.

The reentry simulation is led by Jeff Abramowitz, executive director of the Petey Greene Foundation, which is sponsoring the event. Based in Princeton, N.J., the foundation supports the academic goals of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through high-quality volunteer tutoring programs, while educating volunteers on the injustice manifest in the carceral system.    

According to an American Association of Colleges and Universities 2024 report, employers seek graduates with a sense of social justice as well as skills and abilities, including critical thinking, the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, emotional intelligence, empathy for others and a desire to engage in the local community.

“Community engagement opportunities like the reentry simulation broadens the perception of the world for Augustana students, and it develops in them the skills employers have said they are seeking,” said Kent Barnds, Augustana’s executive vice president for strategy and innovation.

Dr. Varallo said the reentry simulation is an opportunity for students and other participants to understand the barriers to successful reentry facing those previously incarcerated.

“This short simulation offers participants the chance to step into someone else’s shoes,” said Dr. Varallo. “To actually experience the bureaucracy, barriers and permanent punishments that impede successful reintegration — and that too often lead to reincarceration.”

Dr. Varallo said many people don’t understand why America has such a high recidivism rate.

“After this simulation, our participants will understand that far better — they will understand the incredible statistic that nearly a quarter of Illinoisans who returned to prison did so not because they committed a new crime, but due to a technical violation of parole,” she said. “When people leave prison, what do they tend to experience? That’s what this simulation reenacts.”

In addition to the hardship of incarceration on individuals, taxpayers are left with an exorbitant bill, she said. The simulation was planned in part to craft a culture of curiosity and learning about major problems that educated leaders may be called to help solve.

“There is no one better in this country than Augustana students and alumni, including our APEP incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Vikings, to help solve some of these problems. And to solve these problems, we’ve got to understand them.”

Launched in August 2021, APEP serves incarcerated men at the East Moline Correctional Center who can earn a four-year degree in [communication studies or American studies, Augustana’s newest interdisciplinary major that draws upon American history, literature, politics and arts. APEP classes are taught by Augustana faculty, and the curriculum mirrors the college’s liberal arts focus.

Dr. Varallo said faculty who have taught APEP classes have said the experience was rewarding and enlightening. She said she believes the same will be true for students and members of the public who take part in the simulation event.

“Every single one of us literally pays for this state system of permanent punishments that hurt our communities, families, children, local and state economies,” Dr. Varallo said. “By better understanding the scope of this problem, our leaders can work toward solutions that benefit everyone.”

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