Exoneree Diaries: Jacques Rivera works on his resume

January 7, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera

“I wasn’t comfortable on the buses by myself, which tells you something too, how I’d changed.  Sitting where I had my back towards, no one can sit behind me, watching the doors and who got on, who got off. Real paranoid. Real paranoid.”

THE LEGAL CLINIC at Northwestern University’s School of Law in Chicago had become a hangout for Jacques and other exonerees. It was a refuge from the unpredictability of the real world.

Jane introduced Jacques to social work supervisor and attorney Marjorie Moss shortly after his release. Moss had seen paranoia like his in former prisoners before.

“They’re scared,” she says. “They’re conditioned to look around the corner.”

Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.

Tough guys, who had spent years surviving behind bars, found themselves struggling to survive on the outside. Petrified.

But in Moss’ office and around the clinic, they could breathe. They didn’t have to worry about what was around the corner because they knew they would find the very people who helped free them in the first place.

A lawyer with children and family services, Moss worked with graduate students from Chicago who were training to be social workers. Her job was to help the guys – as well as the few women exonerees—with reentry.

“Just getting someone free is the very first step in another long process,” she says.

After their first meeting, Jacques wanted to come back – but he was concerned about how to get there.

Candida took him in while she was visiting, a few months before their big trip. Then one of Moss’ students helped him out a few times, meeting Jacques at the apartment he shared with his mother, walking with him to the bus and then taking the train with him to the law school downtown.

But on his own, public transportation had proven overwhelming. The problem wasn’t understanding how to get from point A to point B. It was being surrounded by people. At first Jacques considered taking the kitchen knife with him on the bus. He quickly dismissed the idea.

“What about if I overreact and, you know, hurt somebody, or somebody sees and the police come and that’s causing trouble,” Jacques had thought. “I left it at the house.”

JACQUES WALKED FROM OFFICE TO OFFICE at the clinic, talking to people and getting comfortable with himself. He would speak to classes and tell his story.

Unlike other exonerees Moss had worked with, Jacques didn’t want a job right away. He was fine taking his time, and Candida and her husband were giving him some money month to month, which Jacques vowed to repay.

But once he returned from “Donnie and Marie’s adventure” with Candida, he had warmed up to the idea of getting a job. He was tired of sitting around and watching TV. He wanted structure and somewhere to be.

And he wanted to be able to provide, rather than be provided for. He had found himself embarrassed and frustrated when his daughter’s car broke down because he couldn’t help her pay for it.

“I want to be a dad,” he had told Moss. “That’s what dad’s do.”

So he and Moss got to work to find him a job.

THE STUDENTS HELPED him with his computer skills. Moss gave him a book to study for the GED.

“I think he’s a little terrified of getting it,” Moss says, noting he had had some trouble in school when he was younger.

When nothing transpired, Moss didn’t push the issue. She shifted gears to his resume. Jacques was worried about the two-decade gap in his work history. His last job was as a security guard in 1989.

“What did you do in prison?” she prompted.

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Jacques, you must have done something for those years.”

He had. Jacques worked in the kitchen, cooking daily meals for 300 inmates. He had done maintenance, buffing the floors around the prison. He also worked as a groundskeeper and done landscaping.

Moss decided to send him to a woman in the Northwestern University’s human resources department in Evanston, Ill. She was known to make resumes shine.

PATRICIA MESSINA, a staffing consultant, had only been on the job a few months when Jacques came to see her. Coming off two years of unemployment herself, a victim of the tanked economy, she knew how important work was in a person’s life.

They had spoken on the phone first. She had very few visitors, screening candidates and following up mostly by phone.

But Jacques proposed he come down to Evanston to see her. He had the time.

“Sure, come in,” she told him. “Face-to-face. That’d be great.”

The white cement office building on Maple Avenue in Evanston was slightly off campus, just on the corner by the movie theater frequented by students and townies.

Messina’s sixth floor office was quiet when Jacques popped in. He was dressed nicely and flashed his bright smile. A good first impression.

They sat down at a small table. Messina chatted with him a bit to put him at ease – she had been warned he might be jumpy – and tried to find some common ground.

They learned they had both worked in big kitchens. She had been a caterer, so like Jacques, she knew her way around giant pots that fed hundreds. As a result, they both found it difficult to cook for just one person. They laughed about that.

The kitchen jobs in prison were highly coveted, she learned from Jacques. Sometimes there would be 200 applications for only three positions.

Jacques told her about his case – the eyewitness misidentification, the wrongful conviction, the incarceration. She listened. He was the first of several exonerees she was to assist.

“They are just like you and me,” Messina says. “And that’s what, to me, that’s what the scary part of this is, is that it could be any of us. We all look like somebody. It could happen to any one of us.”

She gave him some interview preparation questions for homework and asked him to fill out the answers. Give an example for each one, she told him.

There were about 100 of them.

Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new.

Tell me about when you reached a decision by an organized methodical review of the facts.

And so on. Jacques promised he would dedicate some time to it, drawing as best he could from his skills and work experience in prison.

Meanwhile, there was other work to be done. His lawyers were trying to clear his background. The state of Illinois still considered him a convicted murderer.

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