Caldwell helps exonerees pick up the pieces after prison
By: Deirdre Kennedy
In Lewis Towers’ Regents Hall, a blues band tears through the last notes of “Freedom,” their signature song. The audience claps and cheers, but they can’t grasp the meaning of the song quite the way the band itself can.
The members of the Exoneree Band were all convicted of crimes and served time in prison - then later cleared and declared innocent. Between them, the members of the Exoneree Band have served 87 years in prison, some on death row. And some of the members have one woman to thank for their new lives.
Laura Caldwell is a civil litigation lawyer and the author of 14 novels and one non- fiction book, but her largest influence is not on the best-seller lists. In 2009, she founded the Life After Innocence Program, which works to help wrongfully imprisoned individuals regain control of their lives and re-enter society after prison.
“She is trying to leave her mark on this earth,” says one of her exonerees, Jarrett Adams.
Taking a moment to regroup after the successful fundraising concert for her cause, Caldwell spoke candidly about the project she created. She became interested in the topic when she represented Jovan Mosley, who had been wrongfully imprisoned for six years. Eventually Mosley was declared not guilty, but his struggles did not end there. Once out of jail, he had virtually no resources to get his life back on track. “He started out with nothing and I was just so taken by how hard it was for these exonerees to start over,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell explained that an exoneree is someone who is charged with a crime, convicted of that crime, convicted of that crime, does prison time, and is later shown to be innocent. “We looked at Illinois in general and noticed that we have more wrongful convictions than any state in the union. More than Texas,” Caldwell said. Once exonerated, there are few services to help the former prisoners.
In Illinois and the rest of the country there are innocence projects dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted persons. However, there had never been a project for helping the exonerees once they were out of jail. “Illinois is pretty good about having resources for parolees and ex-offenders. The same is not true if you’re innocent,” Caldwell said.
In 2009, Loyola University’s Life After Innocence program, the first in the world, was born. According to the program’s website, it helps those who have been negatively affected by the criminal justice system to re-enter society and reclaim their rights as citizens.
Life After Innocence, run by students and volunteers at Loyola, assists the exonerees in getting jobs, housing, financial aid, and more, according to Caldwell. “It’s social acclimatization, it’s litigation so that we’re getting official declarations of innocence,” she said.
Additionally, technology plays a large role for exonerees adjusting to life after prison. The clinic teaches them how to use laptops, e- mail, Google, and so on. “Everyone has such a hard time keeping up with technology in the everyday world—well, imagine what it would be like if you had been in jail for 10 years, or 25,” said Caldwell
Perhaps what speaks the most about Caldwell’s impact is the effect she has had on the exonerees’ lives. Alton Logan, a 59-year- old exoneree involved with the program, was wrongfully imprisoned for over 25 years.
“They left me with nothing,” he said about his experience after getting out of jail. Logan began working with Caldwell after his criminal attorney introduced them. “I met Laura, and I fell in love with her. I love her dedication,” Logan continued. “She has no problem helping individuals if they honestly need help.”
Jarrett Adams, 31, also had positive things to say about Caldwell. Adams was exonerated and released from prison in 2007 and is currently attending Loyola Law School. “The reason I’m at Loyola is because of Laura,” Adams said. “Most people work to get where they want to be and then they become complacent. With her, it’s not about that.”
Adams knows that he has to work hard to make up for the years he lost in prison. “I’m 31, but I’m really 22 in the years they didn’t take away from me,” he said. “I would love to be in the club, you know, what do they call it? Poppin’ bottles. But I’m in law school. And it’s for a reason.” Adams now wants to ensure that no one has to go through what he endured.
“I can’t get my 21st birthday back,” Adams said. “I can’t get any of it back.”
“My maxim is this: don’t be pissed. Do something to piss them off,” Adams said. He explained that getting his law degree is a way to break stereotypes:
“I’m showing you all that I’m totally not what you thought I was.”
Adams’ wrongful conviction motivates him to create a better future for himself. Caldwell’s passion for the project lies in the unbreakable spirits of the exonerees. “They try so hard to be positive and grasp the present and take hold of it and be grateful for it,” she said. “I love when I see them because I pick that up.”
While the exonerees inspire her, she has a similar impact on them. “She showed us that we can have trust again,” said Antoine Day, an exoneree who served ten years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of first- degree murder. He was released unceremoniously to the streets of Chicago, in the rain, wearing another prisoner’s clothes because his had been lost.
“She took the time to help us regain things that are necessary for someone to move forward in life,” Day continued. “It’s an episode of my life that I’m excited about.”
Caldwell’s success in Chicago is just the beginning. According to The Innocence Network, other cities have followed her lead and created their own “after innocence” programs. Life After Innocence is also working with legislation to better the services given to people who are declared innocent, making those whose convictions are overturned more of a priority for government services.
Caldwell thinks it’s a matter of raising awareness. “You come and spend time with these guys and you’re just overwhelmed with this joy, this passion and this energy,” she said. “It’s cleansing and it’s healing and it’s just…it’s amazing.”
To learn more about Life After Innocence and its clients, visit us on the web at luc.edu/law/lifeafterinnocence.