Americans wrongfully convicted of crimes but later exonerated, initially, may feel a rush of jubilation at their newfound freedom. After years of knowing their innocence and seeking legal allies to fight for them in the courts, they have stepped out of a prison cell and into the sunlight.
But things are not that simple. Deep down, they know they face a number of challenges once back in civilian life. After being so long ignored, shunned and continuously kicked to the ground, they may find themselves at another life crossroads filled with doubt, frustration and uncertainty.
Psychological, physical and financial
Typically, a person exonerated through DNA testing served an average of 13 years in prison. Those years of imprisonment can lead to permanent psychological, physical and financial damage. Here are some of the challenges they face:
- Psychological: Institutionalization, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not uncommon. Conditioned to the daily routine of prison life, they are not used to making their own decisions. The violent prison environment may lead them to become emotionally aloof and erode any positive social skills. Low self-esteem and depression also are possible due to alienation from the outside world. And witnessing violent acts in prison may lead to PTSD.
- Physical: Prisons are well-known for providing poor health care, allowing an inmate’s medical conditions to worsen or simply go untreated. Once free, they may find a lack of available health care. If they found work in the outside world, the jobs are usually part-time or temporary and often do not provide health care coverage.
- Financial: While their peers advance their education and careers, people wrongfully convicted watch from the prison sidelines and see the missed opportunities. Upon their release, they must scramble to earn a living.
There are many people who face these challenges. A recent report released by the National Registry of Exonerations disclosed that since 1989, nearly 3,250 people have been exonerated after wrongful convictions on crimes.
Support is crucial
Can people institutionalized by prison life find fulfillment upon their release? They can, but it will take time, and it will not be easy. Support from family, friends and justice advocates is crucial and just may steer them toward a fulfilling life path.