Burden of Innocence
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> 'a perpetual battle of the mind'

In an Oct. 31, 2002, memo to FRONTLINE, psychologist John Wilson detailed 10 emotional issues that affect the exonerated -- from the initial shock and betrayal to the painful search for meaning and the sense of abandonment, and more. Wilson is a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University. He testified about the psychological effects of wrongful imprisonment on behalf of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz at their civil trial.

1Shock, Disavowal and Initial Betrayal

Upon arrest, the initial emotional reactions are shock, fear, disavowal and disbelief. There is a sense of unreality about the situation and circumstances. There is the feeling of "this can't be happening to me" and initial hopes that it is all a bad mistake that will soon get corrected. Fears of helplessness and hopelessness begin to emerge but are not fully developed at this point.

2Sense of Injustice, Cruelty and Impotence

The theme of "injustice" looms enormous for the wrongfully convicted. Knowing that one is innocent and yet was subject to the criminal "justice" system is difficult to reconcile, if ever. Injustice is a superordinate category which embraces feelings of anger, rage, fear (of execution); fear of imprisonment and abuse, fear of permanent loss of freedom; and fear of loss of one's innocence and that one's life was for nothing. The sense of injustice tears at the inner soul of the person and is a permanent psychological injury.

3Loss of Freedom and Struggle with Life's Meaning

The loss of personal freedom is a paramount issue. Wrongful incarceration is tantamount to torture of human design. It is not an Act of God or Fate. It is the loss of choice in every aspect of living. It is the loss of autonomy, self-regulation and "free choices" about lifestyle. The loss of freedom ... is experienced as a [willful], unjust and deliberate political act against the integrity of one's selfhood. It is experienced as an attack on the Soul and many report experiencing Soul Death during imprisonment.

4Existential Search for Meaning

The existential search for meaning goes hand-in-hand with the loss of freedom and sense of injustice. Questions such as "Why me? Why now? Why these circumstances?" are nearly always present. The search to find meaning in a willfully imposed injustice by a legal system of laws and justice is a profound dilemma of contradictions. The search for meaning is a travail into the Abyss of Darkness. It is a journey to the edge of Soul Death and Nothingness of One's Being. It is a journey without a light at the end of the tunnel. It is a descent into Hell and the confrontation with lies, dishonesty, injustices, false realities, cover-ups, self-serving bureaucratic systems, corrupt legal and law enforcement officials. It is a test of one's Faith in a Higher Power and confrontation with the possibility of death (execution) or ultimate aloneness.

5Abandonment by Humanity and God

The loss of freedom, mobility, self-choice and determination and forced imprisonment despite innocence often results in a deep sense of abandonment by humanity and God. At the Cosmic level, it is a feeling of being "left out to dry," of being isolated without help, nurturance, or proper assistance to fight for one's dignity. The sense of abandonment is a primitive, primordial, archetypal experience of being without God's care or that of humanity. It is the sense of being small, alone, innocent and without expectable protection. It is the feeling of raw vulnerability and belief that no one cares or can be trusted. It is the sense of being abandoned, rejected and caged like an animal, which deserves less than human treatment or basic respect. The sense of abandonment is the sense of ultimate aloneness, which may be married to hopelessness, dread and the sense that nothing matters in the end.

6Loss of Self, Identity and Dignity

The process of being wrongfully convicted, incarcerated and facing the possibility of never seeing freedom again becomes an attack on the self, personal identity and one's capacity to have dignity. The loss of the self is experienced as "coming apart"; being broken into pieces or shards or fragments of one's "old self." In essence, the "old" innocent self dies and is replaced with a new "criminal" or "incarcerated self" identity. There is inevitable conflict between the "old" pre-conviction self and the "new" self being molded by the system of imprisonment. A loss of a sense of connection and continuity with the past is common -- as if one has lived two separate lifetimes. There is inner conflict in the mind, refusing to die and surrender, and all the time the forces of the incarceration send messages that the "old" self is dead and so "accept your criminal identity and behave accordingly." It is a perpetual battle of the mind -- a battle between the hoped for forces of "Good" against "Evil" in order to preserve one's identity and dignity. However, the true inner conflict of the mind as to the reality of one's true identity becomes blurred, obscured and foggy in the isolated "inside" world of prison. The result is an assault on dignity and the sense of self as worthy of esteem, love, and respect from the self and others. When the ability to have hope, faith and some measure of belief that one's guilt will be exonerated, the fabric which makes up dignity begins to tear and unravel, becoming thin and threadbare with the sense that there may be nothing to replace it.

7Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are psychological cousins. They are inevitably present in the wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Shame has to do with losing face; losing the ideal of our self; losing the good image we hold of our self to others. Shame is the failure to sustain an ideal, value or behavior in which we affirm as important to our lives. Shame as failure means to lose our "good" face to ourselves and others, including God. Guilt is self-recriminalization and blame. Guilt is the experience of failed enactment; the failure to do something we think we should have done or not done. Guilt is self-judgment and self-conviction for personal failures in living.

Shame and guilt pervade the consciousness of the wrongfully convicted. Even if irrational, once convicted and imprisoned, there is often the sense of "being guilty" and "feeling ashamed" for having been "selected, arrested, chosen, victimized, and penalized" by the criminal justice system. The message of the system of justice is: "you are guilty whether you believe it or not; you are guilty whether you are factually innocent or not; you are guilty because the system has declared you publicly guilty and sentenced you." This message contains the latent or hidden code: "shame on you for your acts for which we have declared you guilty; you are now identified, numbered, registered and proclaimed shameful and guilty and will be treated accordingly from henceforth."

Shame and guilt become powerful emotional forces that join with a sense of abandonment, helplessness, loss of hope, and impotence to reverse the fate of injustice

8The Journey of Endurance

Fatigue, surrender and the journey of endurance are ever-present realities of incarceration. Fatigue is the sense of physical fatigue and loss of vital energy. It is the psychological heaviness of wanting to give up, quit, surrender, lay down, sleep, disappear or just stop everything. The wrongful loss of freedom sometimes means learning to endure and survive by making life ordered, structured, routine, automatic, clocklike, punctual with routines, rituals and adaptations to daily events, fighting fatigue and enduring is often achieved by becoming a part of the bigger machine; becoming a cog in the wheel; an automaton carrying out a program or just being an inmate with a number.

9PTSD and Other Psychiatric Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsions, phobias, and paranoia can be construed as normal responses or adaptations to abnormal situations, events, or experiences. Pre and post conviction experiences may cause PTSD and related conditions. Wrongful conviction and incarceration is traumatic; wrongful imprisonment is traumatic. Prison environments are often traumatic and invoke threats, assaults, sexual abuse, and forms of terror.

Exoneration does not mean that the psychological effects of the entire process of trauma will abate. PTSD, anxiety, depression, and the "continued manifestation" of institutionalized behaviors are common and expectable. Fears of re-arrest are expectable and common. Fears of being misunderstood and persecuted are pervasive in daily life. Problems of adaptation to life "outside" is to be anticipated as are sleep disturbances, nightmares, problems of trust, and worries about "having to go back" to prison and much more. Coping with the stresses of freedom is not an easy task. Use of alcohol or drugs may occur as self-medication for anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms or somatic agitation or distress.

The exonerated knows that despite having achieved freedom, life is not normal or the same as it was before. There is frequently confusion, doubt and uncertainty about life, work, relationships and "place in society." The taint of conviction lingers despite innocence. Coping with injustice, loss of freedom and the struggle for psychological survival are personal battles that others cannot begin to understand. It is not unusual to experience the "surrealism of freedom" and feeling as if life were a dream state which is an ongoing play or movie. Happiness, joy and "positive" emotions may not be as plentiful as hoped or what others thought would be present. For some, the spectre of a new life of freedom may be experienced as anxiety producing because of the lack of routine and predictability associated with prison life.

10The Need for Counseling, Connection and Transitional Services

The exonerated, like P.O.W.'s, victims of political oppression, and torture, need to re-establish human connection and a sense of continuity in their lives. They need counseling, guidance and transitional services to help with their emotional residue, psychological sequela of incarceration and re-entry into society.


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published may 1, 2003

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