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What Happens to Innocent People When They Are Freed?

This book gives a name to those who do not have one: exoneree.

What struggles do wrongfully convicted people face even after they are set free? Investigative journalist Alison Flowers paints a vivid picture of life after imprisonment in Exoneree Diaries, in which individual people’s stories expose the deeper problems of mass incarceration and the criminal legal system. Click here to order the book from Truthout!

The following is an excerpt from Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity:

This book gives a name to those who do not have one: exoneree.

The word doesn’t exist. No dictionary I have found, other than online references such as an English Wiktionary, lists exoneree. We have the words exoneration, exonerate, exonerated — but no word for the people freed from prison, innocent of the crimes that sent them there.

The age of mass incarceration has taken many prisoners — not just those behind bars. Families and friends are affected by the loss, as are neighborhoods and communities. More than 2.3 million people are held in thousands of state and federal prisons, jails, and juvenile correctional facilities, as well as military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the US territories. In a country that locks up more people, per capita, than any other in the world, many systemic abuses of citizens exist. Wrongly convicted men and women are inevitably caught in the dragnet. An exoneration happens, on average, every three days in America, a record high. While it is impossible to know how many innocents are languishing behind bars, according to the Innocence Project, studies estimate that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all prisoners in the United States did not commit the crimes of which they have been accused — tens of thousands of people. However, formerly incarcerated people, including exonerees, will tell you they believe the actual number is significantly higher. They would know. Alongside those falsely convicted are the multitudes who have accepted plea bargains. This applies in more than 90 percent of cases, as the accused plead guilty to lesser offenses in exchange for more lenient sentences — or, in some cases, so they can leave county jail and continue on with their lives, unable to post bond. In 2015 alone, sixty-five exonerations were for convictions based on guilty pleas, more than in any previous year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

For nearly three decades, lawyers, journalists, and innocence advocates have exposed flaws in the criminal justice system and identified the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions: perjury or false accusations, eyewitness misidentification, official misconduct, bad science or misleading forensic evidence, and false confessions. But while exoneration marks a new beginning for those who were unjustly convicted, life on the outside can also be fraught with difficulty. There is no infrastructure or aftercare to help exonerees come to terms with all they have suffered, to teach them how to patch together their shattered lives. The lack of support for those wrongfully convicted is an issue that has long been overlooked by the media, which tend to focus on the multimillion-dollar lawsuits won by a very few. Little is known about how exonerated prisoners struggle to rebuild the lives and the livelihoods they have lost. Indeed, release from prison is not the victory it is often perceived to be. It is not the end of the story. It is simply a new chapter.

I realized this as I was investigating potentially wrongful conviction cases at Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, where I worked as a journalist from 2011 to 2013. One day as I prepared to head into my basement office, it occurred to me: We’re doing all this work to uncover new evidence that could free innocent people, but what happens when those innocent people are finally set free? Where do they go? What do they do? Who’s left in their lives?

In early 2013, I decided to follow the lives of a handful of exonerated prisoners. Living in Chicago, I had a front-row seat to the experiences of many exonerees, as Cook County leads the country in the number of exonerations since 1989. A long history of corruption in the Chicago Police Department, which has led to many wrongful convictions, has also given rise to a number of law clinics and projects in the city that are dedicated, pro bono, to freeing the innocent.

Beyond Chicago, scores of other innocence projects, both national and international, work on wrongful conviction cases. Among this network is deep concern for what happens to exonerees once they leave prison. Newly released, they encounter a world where they may have no place to sleep and no way to feed or clothe themselves; where family and friends have grown up, grown apart, or died. They frequently struggle to find employment, as they are unable to shake off the stigma of lockup, and they struggle to overcome the years of institutionalization. The Innocence Project estimates that about a third of exonerees have not been compensated. Only thirty states have passed statutes that provide monetary compensation to exonerees, and many of these state laws fall short. In Illinois, where three of those profiled in this book were convicted, exonerees must prove their own innocence to a judge in order to earn a certificate of innocence and thus become eligible for compensation. It is usually much harder to prove innocence than to prove guilt: over the years of an incarceration, people who could testify on exonerees’ behalf may have died; evidence may have been destroyed. In addition, in many states, criminal records — many of which are searchable online — are not automatically cleared when judges overturn convictions. This interferes with exonerees’ ability to find housing and work and to successfully reintegrate into the community. Meanwhile, to win a civil lawsuit in connection with a wrongful conviction, it is not enough to prove that an exoneree was imprisoned for a crime he or she did not commit. Rather, the exoneree must show that the wrongful incarceration was caused by a narrowly defined sort of official misconduct. In most of these cases, prosecutors have total immunity from liability for civil damages.

Over a period of three years, the exonerees profiled in this book made themselves open and vulnerable to me. Diverse in many ways, Kristine, Jacques, James, and Antione offer a glimpse into the many faces of exonerees — as of this writing, more than 1,750 known individuals since 1989. As Jacques, James, and Antione hail from Cook County, their cases reveal the patterns of misconduct in Chicago that have led to wrongful convictions. Kristine, in contrast, is an exoneree from Indiana, a state that lacks a compensation law. Her story also highlights some particular challenges women face in our judicial system, especially wrongly convicted women who, in their roles as caretakers or mothers, are accused of harming a loved one. In the majority of these cases — as in Kristine’s, in which an accident claimed her child’s life — no crime actually occurred. An additional cruelty to many women incarcerated for lengthy sentences is the loss of the chance to have children — a situation that has haunted Kristine.

Throughout our time together, Kristine, Jacques, James, and Antione all revealed their imperfections, failings, and anxieties. While the personal tragedies that they have overcome are heroic, they are not one-dimensional characters. They, like most of us, are complex yet ordinary people. But they are also extraordinary people who beat remarkable odds to return to us here in the visible world. Still invisible are the many tens of thousands more innocents languishing behind bars.

Some exonerees die before receiving a dime of compensation. Glenn Ford spent almost thirty years on death row at Angola prison in Louisiana, convicted in 1984 by an all-white jury of a murder he did not commit. At the time of his release in 2014, he was one of the country’s longest-serving death row inmates. In late 2014, Ford applied for compensation under a Louisiana law that would have paid him $25,000 per year for ten years plus as much as $80,000 to help with “lost life opportunities” and medical costs. By that time, Ford had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In March 2015, Ford’s compensation application was denied, even though the district attorney had moved for Ford’s release after concluding — and stating publicly — that Ford was innocent of the murder for which he had been sentenced to death. In separate federal lawsuits, Ford sued for civil rights violations in connection with his wrongful incarceration and the prison system’s failure to provide him adequate medical care. Supporters of Ford launched several fundraising efforts — to help with general needs after his release, to offset the cost of hospice care, and to provide support for a cruise with his family that he was never able to take. In June 2015, a little more than one year after his release, Ford died of lung cancer.

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Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity

What happens to wrongfully convicted people after their release from incarceration?

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But concerted efforts by the growing network of criminal justice reform advocates have resulted in promising new initiatives in recent years. In 2012, the National Registry of Exonerations launched its database as the most comprehensive tracker of exonerations, further illuminating the flaws that create the conditions allowing for wrongful convictions. In 2014, for the first time, a prosecutor was sent to jail for his direct involvement in wrongfully convicting an innocent Texas man, Michael Morton, in 1987. Also in Texas, in July 2014, former Dallas County district attorney Craig Watkins led the way, showing how prosecutors are supposed to get it right by exonerating a former prisoner through his office’s own systematic DNA review of old evidence. It was the first exoneration of its kind. In 2007, Watkins’s office was the first prosecutor’s office to open a conviction integrity unit to review old cases. Now the Dallas unit, as well as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, has become a national model for other projects. In 2014, the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, announced it would open the first federal conviction integrity unit in the country. In December 2015, the US Congress passed a bipartisan bill to prohibit the federal government’s taxation of wrongful conviction compensation, excluding these funds from income, where the IRS position had previously been unclear.

Change is happening, but much remains unaddressed. Through the stories of these exonerees we can see the larger blight of mass incarceration itself, a system that pulls apart families and destroys communities. In this system, punishment does not diminish harm. Yet the increasing public and political focus on our broken crime-and-punishment machinery provides some hope that lasting reforms might take root, as more people recognize the damage caused by police misconduct, harsh sentencing laws, the economic injustice of monetary bail, and other judicial ills.

In telling these stories, I have often asked myself how people can ever be made whole after surviving both prison and a wrongful conviction. The exonerees featured here have answered this question for me quite clearly: They can’t be made whole. They won’t be made whole. They can never make up for lost time. “It is a burden, and it continues to haunt you,” says exoneree Antione Day.

They can only move forward.

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