You know, people don’t understand me. People expect me to catch on right away. I’ve been gone for 21 years! You know what I mean? How do you expect me to catch on to something I don’t know nothing about?
IT WAS THE BIGGEST kitchen knife Jacques could find. He slept with it under his pillow for the first month after his release.
When his mother realized it was missing, she asked him about it. He told her he was just scared.
“What are you scared of?”
He wasn’t sure.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
“Scared” is how Jacques’ older sister also Rose remembers him. At least that’s how he appeared.
“To be perfectly honest, he looked homeless,” Rose says, describing his frailty and gray beard. “He looked frightened, scared. He was out of his element.”
Rose welcomed him to stay at her home on the Northwest side of Chicago in her second-floor apartment where their mother was living.
“Are you going to put bars on the windows?” Jacques asked Rose when he first returned. “You know, people can get in these windows here. Are you going to get an alarm system?”
“Jacques, no one is going to get in here. You are safe here.”
The small, confined apartment has a separate double entrance with a door at the top of the stairs. Jacques quickly got in the habit of locking the inside door.
“It’s made of glass, Jacques,” Rose told him, pointing out the futility.
“If they come through, I’ll hear the noise,” Jacques explained.
Two Chihuahua watchdogs, Tigger and Ru, were on guard as well, barking whenever someone approached the door. Tigger, belonging to Jacques’ mom, would prance around like his namesake. Ru, one of Rose’s dogs, took a liking to Jacques and made his migration to the upstairs apartment permanent.
HIS SISTER’S French Vanilla coffee with French Vanilla creamer provided Jacques some solace. He drank out of her red Disney coffee mug with a bird on it, the caption reading something about his first cup of coffee. He later claimed the cup as his own, and she let him.
It wasn’t Jacques first cup of coffee – just his first cup of good coffee in more than two decades and one of the first things he had a taste for after his release.
Rose made him a fresh cup the morning after his release to go with his Lucky Charms, his favorite cereal.
Cereal had been a commodity in prison. It helped fill the gaps between meals, especially when inmates couldn’t stomach what they were offered. Jacques worked in the kitchen for 13 years, so he would hoard cereal boxes, stacking them up around his cell. It was his currency.
A TV news reporter and photographer came to the door, and Rose called for Jacques. He let them in. They were eager to know what he was up to on his first full day of freedom. They wanted to know what he had eaten that morning for breakfast. They asked to take their camera upstairs to see the exact spot where he had slept his first night back.
“Nah, I’m not going to show you that. C’mon,” Jacques told them, defensive and annoyed.
“What’s your next move?” the TV reporter had wanted to know.
Jacques was bewildered. He was busy contemplating that very question as friends and family poured in for visits. They would sit and talk under a canopy in the back yard. His kids came by. Not all at once, but one by one. Jacques’ mind continued to race through the constant activity surrounding him.
What was his next move?
“INMATE J-A-C-Q-U-E-S R-I-V-E-R-A, register number B-0-4-4-3-1 has been released…”
The phone recording, he presumed from the Department of Corrections, hit his mother’s answering machine about twice a day for the first few days he was home.
He was no longer B04431. He was Jacques Rivera, exoneree.
The title got him a free breakfast at IHOP. He was there with his sister Rose and his son Richard, looking over the newspaper article about himself.
“Wow, look! You’re in the paper!” Rose said.
The manager swung by the table, saw the picture in the paper and looked up, realizing it was Jacques.
“You know what?” the manager said. “You don’t have to pay for your meal today. Good luck to you.”
The star treatment followed Jacques when he tried to get his state ID without any documentation. No proof of address or bill in his name.
“I don’t have nothing like that,” Jacques said, pulling out the Chicago Sun-Times article about his wrongful incarceration and release.
The government employee left for a minute and came back.
“We’d be more than happy to give you your ID,” she said, directing him to the front of the line.
ROSE WATCHED HIM. He was sitting on her front porch.
“What are you doing?”
“Just sitting on the front porch.”
“OK. Just sit on the front porch.”
It was as far from home as he would go by himself.
“It was literally like having an infant child,” Rose says.
He stayed indoors and watched sports on TV. Rose had to teach him how to use a remote control again. He was overwhelmed by the number of stations.
Rose would ask him things, like, “You want to go to Subway?”
She showed him her iPad.
He continued to secure Rose’s building, locking windows and doors around him, behind him. He felt like someone was watching him. Like someone was coming after him.
By the third day, Jacques was so troubled by what seemed like a lack of security and by the decisions and responsibilities of a free man that he was almost ready to go back to Stateville Correctional Center.
“I was comfortable. That was my home for 21 years,” he says. “Came at me too soon. It was all the hype.”
A WEEK OR TWO LATER he ventured out on his own. He didn’t go far. He went to the Laundromat a block away.
In prison, he used to wash his underwear, t-shirts and socks by hand. He would scrub them in the shower or in his cell because he didn’t want them thrown in with everyone else’s uniforms.
At the Laundromat, he put his dirty clothes in the washer. He added household detergent and some coins. Jacques stopped to take it all in, the simplicity of washing his own clothes coupled with the magnitude of his newfound freedom.
He hit the start button and watched as the machine took off.