Summer 2016

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Illustration by Sam Ward

Trying to Keep on Growing

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Alison Flowers ’09 MS is an award-winning journalist and Social Justice News Nexus fellow who works at the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company on Chicago’s South Side. She wrote Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence and Identity (Haymarket, 2016).

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Exonerated prisoners face a hard life with little support.

It started with a plant. Or rather, lots of them, in early 2013. I was on my way to interview Antione Day, a Chicago man who spent a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I had met Antione two weeks earlier at the classic Chicago blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends, where he was playing the drums in a battle-of-the-bands fundraiser for the Illinois State Bar Association. Amid bands with bad legal pun names — DisBard and the Objections — was Antione’s ensemble with a simple name and message: Exoneree.

Lesser known at the time, this word for an exonerated prisoner still does not appear in the dictionary. The verb to exonerate and the noun exoneration aside, there is no word for the person cleared of a crime, often after a lengthy incarceration.

Antione and I planned to meet in Rogers Park, a short drive from my Evanston office where I worked at Northwestern’s Medill Justice Project. Since 2011 I had been researching potentially wrongful conviction cases when it occurred to me to ask: What happens when innocent people are finally set free? I set about to answer that question.

We met at a café and walked a few doors down to his workplace, the Howard Area Community Center, where he mentored parolees. And that’s where all the plants greeted me. I counted 17 of them: some in baskets, some propped up high, some on shelves, some in pots. Underneath Antione’s desk in a dilapidated back office, he kept a bucket of water with a cup to ladle water over the plants. Sometimes he sprayed them with a dish-soap solution “to kill the bugs,” a trick his mother taught him. When I noticed he had Scotch-taped a leaf to keep it from splitting, I had to ask him about it.

Turns out, Antione likes to rescue dying plants — “broken plants,” he called them. Jumping up, he pointed to a vibrant miniature tree sitting on top of a file cabinet. He had found it, dried out, in the garbage can behind his building. “I was broken,” he explained. “I was left to just die. I think the same spirit in me is what keeps the plants growing.”

That evening he told me some of his story. Although Antione left prison in 2002, he had only recently cleared his name by earning a certificate of innocence in Illinois, which was then a new legal process that he didn’t know existed until the deadline to apply had almost passed.

At our next visit, I brought Antione a sad little plant in a brown ceramic dish from my basement office, hoping he could revive it.

So began my three-year-long series of interviews with Antione and three other exonerees — Jacques Rivera, James Kluppelberg and Kristine Bunch. I documented their experiences in what became my book, Exoneree Diaries. Their stories revealed serious gaps in our criminal justice system, where there is little to no aftercare for wrongly convicted people.

Living in Chicago, I’ve had a front-row seat to the experiences of these and many other exonerees, because Cook County leads the country in the number of exonerations since 1989. A long history of corruption in the Chicago Police Department, which has led to many wrongful convictions, has also given rise to a number of pro bono law clinics and projects in the city that are dedicated to freeing the innocent.

Like Antione, many exonerees enter a world with no clothes of their own, no money and no place to go. Family and friends have grown up, grown apart or died. The Innocence Project estimates that about a third of exonerees have not been compensated. Only 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, have passed statutes that provide compensation to exonerees, and many of these laws fall short. In many states, criminal records are not automatically cleared when judges overturn convictions. This interferes with exonerees’ ability to find housing and work and to successfully reintegrate into the community.

When I met him, Antione had just started his own nonprofit, Life After Justice, to help fellow exonerees get back on their feet. He spent his nights and weekends fixing up an old house in his mother’s neighborhood with the hope of giving exonerees a place to lay their heads upon release.

“When I came home, there were no programs at all for the exonerees,” he told me in 2013. “I had no assistance whatsoever. I had to create all my atmospheres for myself, and a lot of people are not capable of doing that.”

Last year, as I worked to finish my book, a text message from Antione interrupted my typing. It was a picture of a lush green plant with pink blossoms. I recognized only the brown ceramic pot surrounding it.

Below the image, Antione texted: How you like me now?