“After all the lights and the cameras has shut down, life begins. It kicks in in a very neutral position because you don’t know which way to go, what to do or how to get it done. Exonerees have no services that they qualify for. They have no reentry programs that they qualify for. …The reentry programs are designed to help guys once they return from prison, but exonerees don’t have that opportunity.”
ANTIONE KEPT RUNNING INTO JARRETT ADAMS, a young Wisconsin exoneree who was from Chicago, at events coordinated by Loyola University’s Life After Innocence program. About 20 years Antione’s junior, Jarrett had only been out of prison for a handful of years.
Like Antione, a wrongful conviction robbed him of his youth. In September 1998 Jarrett was two months shy of 18 when he and two friends traveled from Chicago to Wisconsin to attend a party. The three teens returned with a false accusation of rape. The racially-charged case resulted in Jarrett’s conviction in 2000, and it carried a 28-year prison sentence. With the help of the University of Wisconsin’s Innocence Project, Jarrett was exonerated seven years later on evidence that his state-appointed attorney failed to investigate and secure witnesses who
could have cleared him.
“You sit, hope and wish for the day to come and when it finally gets here. You’re so exhausted that you really want to just move on,” Jarrett remembers.
He walked back into the world without any living, medical or financial assistance from the state of Wisconsin. He wore a jogging suit purchased from the commissary and orange shoes provided by the jail. He had $30 left on his account – and was later charged $16 for the rubber-soled canvas shoes.
Jarrett slept on a couch at his mother and stepfather’s place. They were both seniors living on fixed incomes. With a nearly 10-year gap in his resume, and his last known address being a super-max, Jarrett couldn’t find work.
“The news of my conviction and it being overturned was a click of a button away on Google,” he says.
Jarrett turned to academics, attending junior college and later enrolling at Roosevelt University, where he graduated with honors. He landed a job working as a full-time federal defense investigator. Next came law school at Loyola, where Jarrett quickly became the face of various media and outreach efforts – his story played to the school’s mission.
“Everyone is talking about ‘Wow, he’s in law school – this is great!’” Jarrett says. “But no one really knows that I’m still paying on debts that were incurred as a result of being locked up and wrongfully convicted.”
In Wisconsin, the compensation statute for exonerees is one of the weakest in the country, offering up to $25,000 to those who can prove that they didn’t bring about their own wrongful conviction. Jarrett received nothing.
“All the charges were dismissed, and so now you’re asking me to come back around and prove that I was absolutely innocent? That was a standard that it didn’t even take for me to be found guilty!”
Prior to becoming a student at Loyola, Jarrett crossed paths with Laura Caldwell, executive director of Life After Innocence, who had worked on Antione’s certificate of innocence petition, helping to clear his name. She introduced the pair.
It wasn’t until an Innocence Network conference, in a hotel lobby in the company of another exoneree, that Antione and Jarrett shared their stories of release from prison, struggling to find work and sleeping on their mothers’ couches. They both knew of other exonerees who didn’t even have that much. They knew guys who were sleeping in drug houses or signing contracts with family members to give up some of their future compensation (if any) for a roof over their head.
Antione told Jarrett about his idea, the one he had shared with his mother before she passed, to create a home for exonerees where they could escape the pressures of the real world. Jarrett thought they could also provide resources to help these exonerees reenter society. No such state-funded programs exist in Illinois for exonerees upon release.
“We found it to be therapeutic to share our stories with each other,” Jarrett says. “And it gave birth to the idea of Life After Justice [their non-profit organization] and preventing our struggles from becoming everyone else’s.”