[What happens when the wrongfully convicted are finally set free?]
Well, what we expect from the wrongfully convicted when they're released is we expect them, I suppose in some sense, to be grateful for the fact that they've been released. But then we expect them to resume a normal life. We expect them to be able to take on all the decision-making responsibility, all of the sort of normal social interaction that we in the free world take for granted. We expect the wrongfully convicted to simply fit back into that life and behave as though this term of imprisonment hadn't taken place. It is almost impossible for anyone to do that and certainly someone who's been released after having been wrongfully convicted.
[Even after years of being free, some still haven't adapted.]
Yes, well let me explain why I think it takes so long and [why] for some people I think, frankly, it's a permanent change.
One thing is that prison robs people of their agency, of their decision-making ability, their ability to take control over their own life. That seems like it would be a simple thing to regain control over but it's not. When you spend years essentially as a passive participant in your own life, which for the most part is what prison requires of people, it is very difficult for you to ever again think of yourself as an actor, an agent, as a person who has autonomy in making plans and making long-term decisions and so on. Prison oftentimes turns many people into reactors: people who simply take directions from others or react to events that take place around them. And oftentimes when your agency has been dampened or it has been in some instances eliminated, it's very difficult to figure out how to get it back, how to know how to take control of things. ...
Another change that happens to people wrongfully convicted ... is that they enter an environment having in many ways seen the worst of fellow human beings. Prison can be a very frightening, dangerous place. It's analogized by some people who come out of some prisons as a war zone in which people are exposed regularly to acts of violence, to the threat of violence, to sexual assault or the threat of sexual assault. ... Many people come out of prison literally suffering from post-traumatic stress. But they [are] in an environment where they're not allowed to admit to it, where they're not allowed to show or express vulnerability or weakness.
So they're forced in a sense to be disconnected from their emotions. They're feeling things but they're not allowed to show them. And that becomes an adapted mechanism that, when it is experienced over a long period of time, becomes a way of being in the world. ... You spend so much time hiding your feelings, controlling your emotions, ... you're hardened to the world around you. You project an image of yourself which is implacable, which is non-expressive, and it's again very difficult to let go of because it becomes a habit that is practiced for so long under such important, really almost life or death, conditions that it becomes part of who you are.
And absent somebody retracing those steps or working you through how you got that way, it's unrealistic and unfair really to ask or expect of people [to] somehow figure that out for themselves and be able to take the psychological steps to shed that mask and to essentially give up those adaptations that for so long were so important to them.
[We've interviewed people who say they never stop crying.]
... Prison for some people robs them of the ability to feel joy and happiness. They become depressed but in a way that's different from the way we think of depression in the free world. They live oftentimes in a world where there is nothing but shades of gray, where there are no unmitigated joys, where you are constantly constrained and confined and looking over your shoulder and worried about what's going to happen next. And pretty soon the capacity to feel any sense of unqualified happiness or joy has been squeezed from you. And in the case of the wrongfully convicted, of course it's been squeezed from them for no good or proper reason. So again, they can't look on this experience as something that is a way of doing penance for something on the road to redemption and some form of salvation in their life.
It is irrational suffering. It's suffering without meaning, without justification. It is suffering that is impossible to make sense of and so it becomes suffering that becomes very difficult to build from or to grow out of and so they leave prison with a sense of emptiness. ...
The other thing of course that happens to people, especially the wrongly convicted, is this sense of having been robbed of large chunks of life in a way that's irrational, that's senseless, that's meaningless. And I think that sometimes that sadness and that depression is masking a kind of anger for which there is no obvious target and the expression of which is not helpful. ...
I think there are a number of additional problems that all people confront when they come out of prison and it's made all the worse if you've been wrongfully convicted. One is that prisoners oftentimes survive the experience by fantasizing or imagining what life is going to be like once they're released. And they oftentimes for perhaps understandable reasons generate scenarios of a future life that are unrealistic, that leave out several critical steps that need to be taken once they get out. ... When they confront all those differences and all those changes and all those complexities and all those additional hurdles and obstacles that they never anticipated were going to be there, it's deflating. ... It bears no relationship to the fantasy that you had.
And so I think many people feel cheated in another way: They feel cheated in the sense that they somehow sustained themselves with an image -- it's what's kept them going -- and now they realize that it was totally and completely unrealistic. Worse, nobody works them through the nature of the differences and helps them both cope with and take the steps that would be necessary in order to lead even an approximation of a life that they hoped they would lead or expected to be able to lead once they got out. We do so very little for people when they get out of prison, and we do really no more for the wrongfully convicted when they get out of prison, and it's one of the reasons that so many of them go back. ...
[How can we just let these people go home without any kind of support?]
I think it's an incredible scandal and tragedy. It is almost as though there is a kind of collective guilt by association. ... Once somebody gets caught up in the criminal justice system, rightly or wrongly, then in some vague sense society says, "Well, you sort of deserve at some level what happened to you." It's irrational, it's incredibly cruel, harsh, but I think that's an attitude which somehow touches these increasing numbers of people now. ...
I also think frankly that there is an unwillingness to want to look carefully at the system that produced these problems. And the more we recognize the cost, the human cost, the social cost, of having done this to people, the stronger the need to look at the system that did it. And therein lies a bit of a tension. ...
[What do you say to the exonerated prisoners who say, "I want my years back"?]
That's the tragedy of it, obviously, that you can't provide the years, you can't provide the experiences, you can't provide the lost relationships, you can't provide the joys that were never experienced and that probably never will be. You can, however, help people build a life which in some ways helps them make up for what they lost without in any way suggesting that you can make them whole. But since we can't make them whole, we shouldn't throw up our hands and say we can't do anything either. Because we can.
Compensation allows them to live without the kind of economic pressures that people who come out of prison ... confront. It would allow them to get counseling, to get some kind of therapeutic help for those of them who are experiencing psychological problems. It would allow them to ease the pains of their existence in the way that many people in our society do who lead more, rather than less, comfortable lives. So I think it's in some sense disingenuous when people say, "Well, the compensation is not going to make up for what they lost." That ought to be an argument for providing the compensation or for providing more of it, not an argument for not providing any. ...
It's not just the person who's been wrongfully convicted who needs help in figuring out how to reconnect and how to begin to try to fill in some of the social and psychological gaps. ... Family members also need help to know how to reconnect. They need help to understand why the person who was lost to them so many years ago has come back to them in a different frame of mind. ...
[Are they ever able to regain any faith in society?]
The wrongfully convicted seem to have experienced or suffered a profound loss of faith in the institutions of the society, a loss of confidence in the society itself.
... [They] I think have been taught a lesson by this experience that the very worst thing possible can happen to you, and it leads them to a more generalized loss of faith in society in general and people in general.
It's almost at an existential level. It's among the deepest despair I've ever encountered. [They] have gotten to the point where they really expect nothing from no one, from no system of government, because they have seen the harsh face of this kind of mistreatment and the harsh face of oftentimes uncaring officials. They know in their hearts that they did nothing to deserve this and it's happened anyway.
I think once you've experienced that, and once you've experienced it at the hands of so many people, it's very hard to rekindle faith, it's very hard to rekindle hope that you can be free of that in the future.