For any released prisoner, regardless of guilt or innocence, the transition from jail to freedom is difficult. Ex-prisoners must re-adapt to the demands and social norms of every day life, all while dealing with the stigma that having been incarcerated brings. Yet, while many prisoners who are released on parole or at the expiration of their sentence have access to social workers, parole officers, halfway houses, and other services designed to guide them through this difficult transition, prisoners who are found innocent and exonerated are not eligible for these services. Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, in regards to the case of Forest Shomberg, who was exonerated in 2009 without access to any transitional services, sums up the issue nicely—
“If you’re guilty of a crime, you get more support from the state when you’re released than if you’re innocent.”
Although there are methods in place for exonerees to receive monetary compensation, either through state wrongful conviction compensation statutes or by filing civil rights claims, this is often a lengthy process that may not prove to be fruitful (as discussed in this previous blog post). In the meantime, the exoneree is left penniless and without the ability to support themselves. Frank Graves, exonerated in 2010 after being incarcerated for 18 years, laments
“I walked out from solitary confinement out onto the streets with nothing.”
This scenario is all too common for the wrongfully convicted in Florida, as the state releases exonerees with nothing more than the possessions they had on them when they entered the prison and a one-way bus ticket. The state does not acknowledge their own wrongdoing, or the difficulties that the exoneree will soon be facing in the outside world.
For example, exonerees often struggle to afford legal fees, medical bills, counseling, and other services that are necessary to get back on their feet. They face emotional challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder or feelings of alienation from society and family members, as exemplified in this New York Times article about exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic. And because records are not always expunged and the charges for which the exonerees were wrongly convicted often received much public attention, exonerees face difficulties proving themselves worthy of employment, making it even more difficult to succeed.
In other words, the battle isn’t over once the innocent are exonerated; there is still much to be done to ensure their successful reintegration into society. One step being taken by the Innocence Project of Florida is the Exoneree Support Fund, which provides exonerees with support, food, clothing, shelter, and health services during their transition from incarceration to freedom. IPF was the first innocence organization to have a full-time social worker on staff to provide assistance to exonerees and to manage the Exoneree Support Fund. We have been fortunate to have been funded for the next three years by the Archibald Foundation of Tallahassee in support of the Exoneree Support Fund. By recognizing and addressing the difficulties inherent in the transition to freedom, we assert that we still care about the wrongfully convicted even when they are no longer behind bars.