A Place of Their Own
by Karen Wolff, Social Worker
After seven years as a social worker, and working with dozens of exonerees, I’ve been privileged to watch our clients reach many milestones after being exonerated. Most of these achievements are things those of us who have not spent any time in prison take totally for granted: getting a drivers license, opening a bank account, buying a car, getting a job, creating a family. Yet it is always one particular achievement that makes me realize the momentousness of the occasion, and that is when the client moves into his own home. From my perspective, this is the event that marks an exoneree’s transition to life outside prison with a big exclamation point. Unfortunately, not every exoneree gets this opportunity. While 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed compensation statutes, housing remains a huge problem for many exonerees, who often have nowhere to live upon exoneration and without the combined help of the IP Exoneree Fund and adequate compensation (statutory or through a civil suit) may have little chance of ever having their own permanent place to live.
While imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, our clients are forced to live for years – even decades – in an environment in which they have
absolutely no control
. They have been witness to and victims of random acts of violence, told when to wake up and when to go to sleep, when and what to eat, when and for how long they can talk on the phone, subjected to constant searches, thievery and confiscation of their private belongings, prohibited from exercising and educating themselves in the manner they want, deprived of contact with their loved ones and forbidden from maintaining any sense of privacy over their bodies or their physical space.
While I do not attempt to speak for my clients, who may have very different ideas of what represents a milestone in their transition from prison, every time one of them rents an apartment or buys a house, I feel a vicarious surge of pride and independence. As they move from a friend or family member’s home to their own, whether on their own dime or with help from others, I feel a wave of relief and hope that the new home will mean they can finally feel free — really free. These exonerees will no longer be told what to do in their private space or be forced to live by someone else’s rules. They can keep their own hours, listen to loud music, refuse to clean up. No one will inspect or steal their private possessions, prevent them from reading whatever they want or educating themselves. They can sleep on the couch or on the bed, eat ice cream for dinner and go out the door whenever they want, stay out all night, invite people over or forget to take out the garbage. They can decorate however they want or watch TV all night. They can cry in private, have a romantic dinner at home or sleep in until late in the day. Their decisions about what to do in their own space will not be controlled by any person or government entity.
They have their own space
Clockwise, from top left: Damon Thibodeaux with a member of his legal team; his apartment building in Minneapolis; Rickie Johnson in his Leesville, LA home; Jeff Deskovic outside his house in New York City; David Wiggins in his new home in Tyler, Texas; Michael Saunders and son inside their apartment in Chicago.
Over the summer, several of our clients moved into their own apartments or houses — mostly facilitated by the receipt of compensation from the states which wrongfully imprisoned them (or Innocence Project Exoneree Funds).
A few more exonerees are on the verge of receiving money that will allow them to do the same. I usually ask my clients for pictures of their new homes and when I receive them I forward them to the entire office. I want everyone to see what I see — the client taking a giant step away from the horrible trauma of his past and toward a life of volition and independence.
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