Civil Liberties

Depressing U.S. Prison Story of the Day: Released Innocent Prisoners Get Less Help Than the Guilty


In a country of two million-plus jailed individuals, one might think that the least the state could do when they get the wrong guy or gal is to is to pay through the nose, or do anything to help that state-sanctioned kidnap victim try to get their life back.

But whoops, says USA Today, turns out if you were innocent all along, that may not mean much. Indeed, even if you were jailed for a federal crime that turned out to not have been proper, well, good luck with that. Back in June, Reason's Scott Shackford related USA Today's investigation into the fact that 60 individuals in North Carolina were put into prison for being felons in possession of firearms, even though, that was not a federal crime. The details of the wonky law's federal versus state clashes can be found at the above links…

The point at the moment is that with some of these folks (17 so far, with 12 more with their convictions overturned) finally being released, well, turns out there are fewer options than you might hope for them getting their feet back on thr ground.

Most of them have received little more than a bus ticket. Federal law does not require the government to help them search for jobs or find basic necessities such as clothing and a place to live, assistance the guilty routinely receive during their post-prison supervision, partly to keep them from returning to crime.


…The U.S. Justice Department had originally argued that they should remain in prison anyway, but reversed its position last month "in the interests of justice," according to court records.

At least 10 states provide services such as job training, health care and housing assistance to wrongfully convicted prisoners, according to an Innocence Project study. Most states and the federal government also provide some help in finding social services once someone serves his full prison sentence and is released on parole or supervision, though that help is not available to people whose convictions are overturned.

Compensation for the time they were locked up is even less likely. Federal law permits the government to pay people up to $50,000 for every year they were wrongly imprisoned, but the ex-prisoners—almost all of whom could have been convicted of state crimes with lesser penalties—are unlikely to meet its strict eligibility requirements.

"Exonarees fall into this hole where there really isn't a re-entry program for them. Their path to re-entry is often more difficult than someone who has legitimately served time," said Michele Berry, an Ohio lawyer who has handled wrongful conviction cases there. She said that means prisoners freed because they are innocent could have a harder time after they are released than guilty inmates who finish their sentences.

The rest here. More hideous tales of the U.S's prison addiction can be found all over Reason, particularly in our July, 2011 print issue. 

The thing about the prison-industrial complex is how perfectly it encapsulates the fact that government always wins. Or rather, ordinary people will always bare the burden of government mistakes. If you suffer the unimaginable horror of being jailed for something you did not do (or something that shouldn't be a crime at all… ), you absolutely deserve payment for your stolen years. But who will pay? Taxpayers, of course. Never bad cops, bad prosecutors, or bad judges. 

Another disturbing, rarely-remembered facet of incarceration nation, can be found over at Mother Jones where James Ridgeway writes about "The Other Death Sentence," the grim fact of what caring for elderly lifers in prison means. It's essential reading if you're worried about this issue, and even if you have trouble sympathizing with actual murderers, no matter how old and feeble they may be. 

In June, Ridgeway talked to Nick Gillespie and Reason TV about solitary confinement and whether it counts as torture.