by Heather Peters
The high school students rolled their dice and then groaned as they realized their character was about to land on a space titled ‘Parole Check-in’. The character they were moving around on the game board represented a young black man who had already been to jail once and hadn’t found a place to live after his release. The students knew that this might mean a negative consequence at the parole check-in. Sure enough, the character needed to miss a turn in the next round. “At least we didn’t get sent back to jail,” one of the students said as they sat back to wait for the next time they could roll the dice and move ahead.
These students were participating in a learning experience called ‘You Got Booked’. Originally developed by MCC in the United States to address issues of American mass incarceration, MCC Saskatchewan adapted the resource to highlight racial disparities within the Canadian criminal justice system and to demonstrate how people may find themselves in cycles of incarceration and poverty. In You Got Booked, participants choose game pieces that represent different identities and travel around a life-sized board game trying to build assets and avoid prison. Each participant begins with a different set of resources and throughout the game receives different consequences to life challenges, but all are expected to reach the same end goal of having a home, job and money without going to jail.
By participating in this tool, people learn that different intersections of identity can lead to varied experiences of justice. For example:
- In 2017, 6,251 migrants were detained in Canada without having committed a crime. This included more than 162 children. Many of these people were denied refugee claims and their countries of origin will not allow these individuals to return.
- In 2016, Canada’s crime rates hit a 45-year low. At the same time, incarceration rates hit an all-time high.
- One of the key elements of reintegration after incarceration is maintaining a relationship with family. If visiting with a family member is challenged by distance and security, phone calls are another option. However, phones in Saskatchewan prisons have been privatized, making it more expensive to maintain contact.
- From 2013 to 2015, Ottawa Police Services found that Black drivers were stopped 2.3 times more often than expected given their representation in the driving population; young Black men were stopped 8.3 times more; Middle Eastern drivers were stopped 3.3 times more; and young Middle Eastern men were stopped 12 times more.
At MCC SK, we have facilitated this learning tool with high school students, restorative justice practitioners and people with lived experiences in the justice system. Some common reactions emerged from these different groups. First, participants comment on how unfair the game seems to be set up. For a few characters, money, education and housing are easily accessible, propelling them quickly ahead of the other characters. After only a few rounds in the game, some participants can see that their character has very little chance of ‘winning’. These participants protest when they are repeatedly held back or need to pay for something with their meagre finances. Sometimes the characters who are ahead on the board have some bad luck and need to go back a few spaces. Often this leads to the rest of the participants cheering, gleeful in the misfortune of those who consistently are ahead. It is easy to see this as an illustration of how access to resources can divide people in our communities.
Often throughout the game, empathy emerges for the characters that are encountering repeated challenges, which motivates participants to try to figure out how to change the rules (sometimes with the encouragement of the facilitator). Participants start strategizing about what they can do to support each other to bring more equity to the game. Some loan each other money and negotiate with the facilitator to make changes. People who have lived experience of the justice system often make suggestions that help characters break cycles of incarceration. In these ways, seeds of advocacy and mutual aid are planted in the minds of the participants.
Many participants can see themselves in the characters of the game. One student reflected, “I realize that my dad is most like the guy in this game that has all the resources and can get through life fairly easily. And if my dad is like that, it means I am too.” When we facilitated You Got Booked in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, one of the participants commented, “This game is harsh!” I asked him whether he thought it was too harsh, was it inaccurate? “No,” he said, “Those things have happened to me. All people on the outside should do this so they can learn what our lives are really like.”
By recognizing themselves as active members in a system that perpetuates cycles of incarceration, poverty and injustice, this exercise encourages participants to look for opportunities and think about ways that would change this system. People who know very little about the justice system and people who have lived experiences within the justice system have similar points of reflection when participating in this exercise. You Got Booked empowers all participants to get involved and to work for a just society.
Whether by advocating for better justice practices, volunteering with organizations doing the work of restorative justice, or by promoting community initiatives that uplift people’s value and dignity, we can each play a role in creating safe spaces for everyone.
While COVID19 has challenged our delivery of this tool, we continue to explore ways to best adapt it for an online learning experience. Whether through virtual or in-person facilitations, we believe that You Got Booked is a great tool to encourage and empower individuals to make positive changes in their communities.
Heather Peters is a Peacebuilding Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan
For more information about using You Got Booked in your community contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about MCC’s restorative justice work across Canada: https://mcccanada.ca/learn/what/restorative-justice .
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