Earlier this summer, we introduced you to three new student members of Life After Innocence. The summer session has recently wrapped up, and to say it was a success would be an understatement. In just 8 short weeks, we have found, outfitted and moved an exoneree into his first apartment; we have helped another exoneree secure various job interviews; and we have continued to set ourselves up for another successful school year beginning this fall. As our summer wrapped up, the three new student members reflected on their first experiences with LAI:
It has been an honor to work with Life After Innocence this summer, and I am eager to continue throughout the upcoming school year. My experience with LAI has allowed me to form close relationships with exonerees, individuals I would not otherwise have the opportunity to know. The exonerees’ experiences with the criminal justice system and their time spent wrongfully incarcerated has allowed me to realize how much of life I take for granted. Freedom seems inherent in life. However, the ability to be physically, mentally and emotionally free was taken away for most of these exonerees’ lives—some for as long as decades. We take basic daily activities such as walking to the store for groceries, working to make a living, or celebrating birthdays for granted. These are activities we put little to no thought into because they are such basic tenets of life in the real world. Most of the exonerees I have interacted with were charged and convicted at a young age and subsequently imprisoned for years on end. These insignificant daily occurrences became impossibilities while they were caged in correctional facilities for most of their lives where freedom became a distant memory.
When I was introduced to Michael Saunders during the wrongful conviction seminar, what struck me most was that Michael had spent more years in prison than he did in the real world. As a 14-year-old boy, he was convicted of a rape and murder he did not commit, along with 3 other teenage boys. Michael spent 17 years incarcerated. During those 17 years, Michael missed major milestones we in the free world often celebrate. In prison, there is no normal development and Michael was mentally and emotionally delayed when re-entering the real world 17 years later. Over the summer, I have gotten to know Michael on a personal level and his strength and positive attitude towards the future is astonishing and inspirational.
This summer I have also gotten to know Angel Gonzalez who was released only a few months ago. Re-entering the world with nothing, LAI worked hard to get donations to completely furnish his new apartment. We also purchased him a new mattress set with bedding, funded by the innocence project. Having our own bed to sleep on is another thing we take for granted, but was taken away from these exonerees. Helping Angel to furnish his own apartment and get him his own new bed has been exceptionally rewarding. It has been incredible to know Angel during his journey after innocence and helping him adjust to life now that he is free again.
Easily my favorite part of working with LAI this summer was the insight gained through interacting with the exonerees. That was what sparked my interest in the program initially. Moreover, the part that really resonated with me was that the majority of exonerees I spoke with were convicted right around the age I am now—21. At this time in my life, I spend my weekends carelessly exploring the city, socializing with my friends, and making lifelong memories—exactly what all 20-something-year-olds should be doing. But, for the exonerees, their only memories of their 20s are from behind bars. It blew my mind that they could be so positive after being robbed of so many of the positive experiences I take for granted every day. It put things in perspective for me and really reminded me of how lucky I am to have my freedom, and also how easily my care-free lifestyle could become a thing of the past through one slip of the justice system.
This summer was my first semester with Life After Innocence, and it will definitely not be my last. LAI greatly exceeded my expectations in terms of both knowledge gained about the criminal justice system and the impact it had on me in just the two short months I was with the program. This impact is partly because of the LAI clients’ remarkable yet almost unbelievable stories. One of the clients I was assigned to for the summer was recently released after serving 20 years. When he was incarcerated, he did not know any English, but was fluent upon his release; he taught himself by reading the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary. Another client was arrested at age 14, and spent more years incarcerated than he did outside. Many of the clients were incarcerated before the age of cell phones, e-mail, and personal computers, items that I have grown up with and take for granted. Also, upon release, the clients are faced with the tasks of searching for an apartment and employment, tasks that are not easy for me, let alone someone who has been removed from society for many years. LAI is one of few services that assists with these tasks.
More surprising was the positive outlooks that each of LAI’s clients have adopted. Despite having decades of their lives stolen from them, each are hopeful and optimistic about the future. They cherish every day and don’t take anything for granted. Even though I do not know yet where I will land in two years as I start practicing, I am certain that I will remember this experience. I am also hopeful that I will continue to contribute in some way to the clients’ causes, either in an official capacity or because my relationships with some of the clients have grown into friendships.