On November 12, 2009, Fernando Bermudez walked out of a courtroom and into the free world. After spending 18 years in prison for a 1991 murder in Greenwich Village that he did not commit, the charges against him were dropped. He was declared innocent. But a difficult path awaited him.
Bermudez recalls having to readjust to basic aspects of life that many take for granted—like sleeping in his own bedroom, an environment worlds away from his stark prison cell. "Just simply being able to cross the street was an issue. Shopping at department stores and handling money confused me," he says.
"Upon my exoneration, reentry into society was culture shock," he says. "I had to adjust from nearly two decades of harsh prison life to a drastically changed society with no financial or psychological assistance to help me cope against the harm that my family and I suffered. "
In recent years, some criminal justice advocates in New York have focused on the need for stronger procedures to avoid wrongful convictions: According to the Innocence Project, more than 10 percent of DNA exonerations nationwide have occurred in New York State.
Meanwhile , other advocates have called attention to the plight of former inmates returning to society.
In exonerees, these two hot topics converge. All former prison inmates face challenges. But, three months of reporting and interviews with 12 exonerees and thirty parolees (who were not wrongly convicted) reveal that exonerees are spared few of the indignities that "guilty" ex-inmates suffer.
Readjustment is just as hard
Some of the problems facing exonerees mirror those confronting all former inmates—the difference is in the degree of injustice. Some are as simple as finding shelter.
Korey Wise, one of the men wrongly convicted of the Central Park beating and rape of 1989, echoes these accounts. Before his entrance into prison, he was 16 years old and lived with his mother. After being incarcerated for more than 11 years, Wise had difficulty finding a place to live. He stayed with friends and family for three years and now resides in a transitional housing program for people seeking assistance in the Bronx. (Wise was arrested on December 19th and charged with menacing and assault. He denies the allegations against him).
Similar to individuals on parole, more than half of the exonerees interviewed also faced some type of obstacle to finding a job or holding down steady work. Incarceration, even for individuals innocent of their convicted crime, can be a disadvantage in the labor-market.
The disadvantage does not appear to be nearly as severe for exonerees as it does for those on parole, who are frequently denied employment due to their criminal record. But exonerees may encounter difficulties maintaining a stable job, while trying to readjust to society. After two years of working in construction after his incarceration, Wise was laid off during the recent recession. For both Bermudez and Wise, public speaking engagements are a source of income, while Wise is also on disability.
John Kogut, exonerated of a Long Island rape and murder in 2005, initially found employment through Centurion Ministries, a national organization that frees innocent people from prison by reinvestigating their cases; it was responsible for Kogut's exoneration. After his release, he worked at a church as a handyman for year and at a small dog rescue service for another three years.
Currently, he is unemployed, with hopes of starting his own dog rescue business. After his return from prison, Centurion Ministries assisted him in finding an apartment and paying the first few months' rent, while he saved money. "At the beginning, I had nothing," Kogut says, "If I didn't have Centurion Ministries, who knows where I would be now."
Kogut found himself having to start life from scratch. He faced problems obtaining critical documents like identification and his social security card after his return from prison—a process that lasted six months. "When you come out, you really don't have none of that. After doing 15 to 20 years, you don't exist no more. You have to build your identity all over again," he says. Kogut emphasizes that without a support network it can be nearly impossible to adjust and reestablish one's life outside the prison walls.
Exonerees are often left coping for the rest of their lives with the trauma left by both their wrongful conviction and lengthy prison term. It is not uncommon for them to enter society suffering from anxiety as well as more significant mental health issues.
Like other ex-inmates, they may turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to deal with the effects of their wrongful conviction. Kogut says he initially turned towards illegal substances as a coping mechanism. "It's an issue of coming out angry. These people—even though they're wrong—want to fight you tooth and nail (on your innocence). They won't admit they were wrong," Kogut says.
Exonerees may file for monetary compensation as a result of their wrongful conviction. Twenty-seven states and Washington D.C. have laws that promise varying amounts of compensation for exonerees. But it can take several years to receive the funds ,and advocates maintain that the amount of money provided by many states is not enough.
New York defers to the Court of Claims to decide how much an individual is entitled.
In states without compensation statutes, obtaining money can be a lengthy and complicated legal process. Research conducted by The New York Times in 2007 found that of 206 exonerees surveyed, 40 percent had received no compensation from their state.
Currently, Bermudez has a civil suit for compensation pending against New York State and city, while Kogut and Wise's suits are in the federal court.
Exonerees acknowledge that a few, small-scale support systems do exist for them coming out of prison, like the social work program established by the Innocence Project in 2006 or in Kogut's case, Centurion Ministries. Exonerees rely on these types of services or mental health counselors in times of need; yet, the overwhelming consensus is that these are far too few in number.
Advocates assert that New York State offers exonerees no reentry services, in contrast with ex-offenders. According to a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson, the department partners with community based organizations and governmental agencies to deliver support to individuals on parole. The spokesperson said he did not know whether exonerees could qualify for these services.
Both exonerees and ex-offenders encounter serious problems reestablishing relationships with their families and friends. In many instances, their incarceration disrupts their bonds with their children. Bermudez explains that his relationship with his daughter was affected by his wrongful conviction. "She was under the assumption that I didn't love her because I was still trying to adjust. We were just trying to situate ourselves as a family. Now she realizes that it wasn't that I didn't love her, it was just that her dad had real issues in terms of trying to understand the world after being away from it so long," he says.
Similarly, Kogut experienced difficulties reestablishing relationships disrupted by his incarceration: "Most people forget about you after that amount of time."
The sense of isolation can be frightening. As Bermudez recalls, "It's hard to forget what you saw, it's hard to forget the idea of you being trapped in a cell and declaring your innocence everyday whether mentally or to someone else, and not being believed, or feeling voiceless."