It should go without saying that prison leaves lasting emotional scars. But life after prison when one is wrongfully convicted can be incredibly challenging. The system fails people every day. More than 2,000 people have been released from prison after wrongful convictions since 1989.
Some people languish in prison for decades before being exonerated. How do you piece your life together after such a traumatic interruption?
Lack of assistance
When people are paroled from prison, they are assisted with housing and employment. In many states, innocent people released from prison are cruelly not offered the same help. The substantial employment challenges aside, someone released from prison, even with an official exoneration, will have difficulty opening a bank account, getting a credit card and finding health insurance.
More than half of U.S. states have compensation laws for wrongfully imprisoned people. Wrongful conviction lawsuits are also an option, but these suits can take years and are notoriously difficult to win.
Some states cap the financial damages one can seek at absurdly low amounts. In New Hampshire, the cap is $20,000, no matter how long you were wrongfully imprisoned.
The false stigma of guilt persists
Questions like “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” and “Have you ever been incarcerated?” are minefields for people rebuilding their lives after serving wrongful prison terms. Rarely do they get the opportunity to explain their unique situation.
The Innocence Project provides states considering new laws for the wrongfully convicted with model legislation that includes subsistence payouts for short-term expenses like clothes and housing, job training and education. But “tough on crime” legislators are reluctant to support change.
Separation from your loved ones, untold lost opportunities and navigating an unfamiliar world are piled on top of the immense emotional toll of prison life. Mental health assistance should be provided by default, but not all states offer such help.
Legal help can soften reentry into society
No matter what state laws exist, people released after wrongful convictions have legal options. At a minimum, people can seek legal help with obtaining public benefits, expunging criminal records and regaining access to their children.
In states that don’t have compensation statutes on the books, wrongfully convicted people can still undertake a lawsuit for damages. Again, these suits are difficult to win and may be subject to statutes of limitations. Consult an attorney for more information.