The Intersection between Wrongful Convictions and Prisoner Reentry: A Look at the Challenges Faced by Exonerees Post-Incarceration
University of New Haven
The phrase “prisoner reentry” is a buzzword and important topic within criminal justice. Despite the attention and research focused on the subject, the numbers surrounding reentry are shocking. Upwards of 1.5 million people currently are incarcerated in the United States, and roughly 600,000-700,000 people are released from correctional facilities each year (Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021). Unfortunately, the rate of homelessness among the formerly incarcerated is 5,700 per 100,000 people, and 27% of releasees are currently unemployed (Recidivism and Reentry, 2021).
In the early 2000s, a shift occurred in the prisoner reentry system. Determinate sentencing was favored over parole, more people were being released into society with little to no supervision or oversight, and the focus of governmental post-release programs became surveillance instead of assistance (Seiter & Kadela, 2021). In addition to impacting a person’s prison-community transition, how release and reentry are handled affect other aspects of the criminal justice system. The ease with which someone reintegrates back into society following incarceration affects recidivism rates (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021), as well as community relations (Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Widra, 2021). The more stable the transition, the lower the likelihood of recidivism.
Things become even more complicated, and even more important, when prisoner reentry is looked at through the lens of wrongful convictions. When someone is released from prison following an exoneration, they often do not qualify for the same services as their fellow “guilty” inmates (Zannella et al., 2020). Exonerees often face more stigmatization than regular releasees, even though they did not commit the crime for which they were sentenced (Jackson et al., 2021; Scherr et al., 2020). This stigmatization can separate exonerees from their families and from society in general, making it even harder for them to have a successful reentry process.
Despite the prevalence of wrongful convictions in the United States, it was not until recently that research started focusing specifically on the lived experiences of exonerees. Learning first-hand through interviews and experiments about the barriers exonerees, even after they won the initial battle and got their freedom back, provides valuable insight into what the current reentry system can do to better support this population. The purpose of this paper is to review previous research on the intersection between prisoner reentry and wrongful convictions, detail current research focusing on the challenges exonerees often face during the reentry process, provide policy implications, and identify future research opportunities.
Prisoner reentry is a major concern within the criminal justice system. Research estimates that from half to two-thirds of the 600,000-700,000 individuals released from incarceration each year are likely to recidivate within three years of release (Bales & Mears, 2008; Barrick et al., 2014; Liu & Visher, 2021). The effectiveness of the transition from incarceration to freedom has become a prime focus for researchers (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021). Employment, visitation, and social ties have all been shown to impact a person’s release from incarceration, specifically their likelihood of recidivating (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Baker, 2021; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Latessa, 2012; Liu & Visher, 2021).
When family and friend support is minimal, government-funded reentry programs become a lifeline for people trying to get their footing back in society. Two main types of reentry programs currently exist, one with an emphasis on treatment and another with an emphasis on corrections (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). Both can be effective at reducing recidivism, if they begin during incarceration and extend post-release. Work programs, education programs, and substance abuse rehabilitation all can be beneficial during the prison-community transition, but their highest efficacy comes when incarcerated individuals have access to them while incarcerated, while on parole (if applicable), and after they are entirely free from governmental oversight.
Even though research has shown what works, there are still plenty of issues with current reentry practices (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). Most programs do not have the follow through necessary to provide maximum support, and funds are often limited for such programs. Since the 1990s, a shift in the use of parole for risk management (instead of rehabilitation) has brought a decrease in funding, leaving those without pre-existing support systems to often fend for themselves (Kuhn, 2021; Seiter & Kadela, 2003).
Another issue arises when people are released from incarceration due to an exoneration. Acker (2017, as cited in Mays & Ruddell, 2019) states that wrongful convictions date back to the 1600s and the Salem Witch Trials. Since then, the causes and number of occurrences of wrongful convictions have grown (Gould & Leo, 2010; Mays & Ruddell, 2019). Exact numbers can be hard to obtain, but best estimates suggest that roughly 2,700 felony exonerations have occurred in the United States, with approximately 150 occurring each year (Mays & Ruddell, 2019). Misdemeanors are even more likely to result in a wrongful conviction than felonies, due to the way they are processed through the system (Acker, 2017; Mays & Ruddell, 2019).
As of 2016, DNA evidence has exonerated 444 people (Mays &Ruddell, 2019). To put that into perspective, a study by Leuschner et al. (2020) found that while exonerations in Germany were caused by similar factors as to those in the United States, only 31 accessible cases of exonerations occurred in Germany between 1990 and 2016. These cases in both countries only include individuals who have been legally exonerated; in the United States alone, it is estimated that thousands are wrongfully convicted every year (Mays & Ruddell, 2019).
Causes of wrongful convictions in both the United States and Germany include false allegations, false confessions, false expert testimony, and eyewitness misidentifications (Leuschner et al., 2020). In America, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial and police misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, perjured testimony, forensic science error, and tunnel vision (confirmatory bias) during an investigation and/or trial also contribute to troubling wrongful conviction rates (Gould & Leo, 2010; Mays & Ruddell, 2019). Scherr et al. (2020) found that people who were wrongfully convicted based on false confessions and false guilty pleas faced more stigmatization upon exoneration than those who were wrongfully convicted for other reasons. Their study also found that people believed those who provided false admissions of guilt were less intelligent, not entirely innocent, and held more responsibility for their convictions (Scherr et al., 2020). These feelings resulted in a belief that people who gave false confessions or falsely pled guilty were less deserving of support upon release from incarceration.
Given the limited financial resources available for reentry programs (Seiter & Kadela, 2003) and the importance of social ties in reintegration (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Baker, 2021; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021), this additional stigmatization has the possibility of setting up the exonerated individuals for failure. Kassin (2012, as cited by Mays & Ruddell, 2019) found that race and ethnicity can play into this stigmatization as well, since language barriers can lead to false confessions. It has also been found that false confessions are more likely to come from African Americans (Mays & Ruddell, 2019). This means that populations that are over-represented in the criminal justice system to begin with are more likely to be involved in the system due to a wrongful conviction.
Since exonerees are often released very suddenly (Scherr et al., 2020), they may not have time to plan for life post-incarceration. Exonerees, like those released directly from solitary confinement back into society, are often not entitled to the same release and reentry services that regular releasees receive, making them reliant on family and friends until they can start putting their lives back together again (Scherr et al, 2020; Thompson, 2015). This means that the populations of released citizens that should be given the most support upon release are typically given the least.
Previous research focused to a great extent on the causes and frequency of wrongful convictions. In other words, the research looked at the events that occurred prior to incarceration. As a result, current research has moved to focus more on events occurring during and after incarceration. Topics such as how prison experiences differ for wrongfully convicted individuals versus “guilty” prisoners (Jackson et al., 2021), the general struggles of reentry following exoneration (Shlosberg et al., 2020), and the specific struggles that exonerees may face when attempting to secure housing (Zannella et al., 2020) are all current areas of emphasis in the intersection between wrongful convictions and reentry. Each of these aspects of the exonerees’ experiences help to provide a better understanding of what happens when an innocent person is convicted and sentenced for a crime they did not commit.
Jackson et al. (2021) examined the daily life of an incarcerated “innocent inmate,” using phone interviews with exonerees to gain a more in-depth understanding of what it is like to be wrongfully incarcerated. Twenty-three individuals were interviewed, recruited via snowball sampling, and all were either exonerated or had their convictions vacated (Jackson et al., 2021). The interviews were semi-structured, specifically asking the exonerees about their feelings entering prison, their challenges during incarceration, the difference between being innocent and guilty of the crime for which they were charged, whether they revealed their innocence while incarcerated, and their adaptation and coping mechanisms for surviving prison life and post-release. All exonerees were self-selected, and other information beyond the semi-structured questions was shared at the discretion of the exoneree.
Eight of the 23 exonerees were female, and it was found that they were often convicted of crimes involving injury to a child or another loved one (Jackson et al., 2021). The majority of the male exonerees, however, were convicted of either rape or sexual assault. In terms of race, African Americans spent more time in prison than their white or Hispanic counterparts (average of 21.13 years versus 16.79 and 16.50, respectively). These demographic findings match previous research and national case data.
In terms of the interview content, disbelief was a common emotion upon entering prison (Jackson et al., 2021). All but one exoneree told at least one person within the prison they were innocent, even though no one believed them. Some were able to find others who they believed were also wrongfully convicted, which helped build connections; overall, however, the exonerees felt isolated from the rest of the inmates. Many also felt like they did not understand the jargon used by the other inmates, further isolating them from their surroundings. Even if they were able to learn the social rules of the prison, many exonerees felt they never actually “adapted” to being incarcerated. This social isolation inside the prison, coupled with the physical and emotional separation from their families, made building and maintaining social ties difficult while incarcerated, potentially making the reentry processes even harder (see also Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Baker, 2021; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Jackson et al., 2021; Liu & Visher, 2021).
While money from lawsuits was beneficial to some upon release (in the cases it was available), not everyone received funds during their transition to freedom (Jackson et al., 2021). Monetary issues, large chunks of time missing from their lives while they were incarcerated, and decreased social skills presented significant challenges for many upon release. As a result, Jackson et al. (2021) emphasized the need for increased post-release support for exonerees, as well as increased wrongful conviction education and training at every stage of the criminal justice system.
In a similar vein, Shlosberg et al. (2020) used 24 semi-structured interviews with exonerees to detail the challenges exonerees faced post-release. Similar to Jackson et al. (2021), study participants were acquired via snowball sampling, and all participation was voluntary (Shlosberg et al., 2020). The interviews focused on challenges faced upon release, how prepared exonerees felt to reenter society, and how aspects of reentry (such as employment, healthcare, and relationships with others) were going. The demographics of the participants were similar to those in Jackson et al.’s (2021) study, as well as national case data.
While experiences varied greatly, five common themes were found among the interview responses (Shlosberg et al., 2020). Upon release, struggles with technology, mental health, and finances were all apparent almost immediately and continued throughout the reentry process. Social ties were also often strained, and many dealt with the stigma that can accompany a prison sentence. Since exonerees are often released suddenly, and not within the parole system, they do not have the benefit of a parole officer or other officials helping them plan for their future. Some interviewees even commented that the routine monitoring that comes with being on parole would have been welcome, since they went from such strict rules while incarcerated to complete freedom (Shlosberg et al., 2020).
Beyond the lack of resources provided to exonerees, Shlosberg et al. (2020) highlighted the issues people have fitting back into society upon their release. Even if people are exonerated, the stigma (or a shadow, as some exonerees called it) follows them, with people in the job and housing markets often thinking they got off on a technicality and are not actually innocent (Shlosberg et al., 2020). Zannella et al. (2020) focused specifically on how that stigma affects exonerees looking for housing. Done in Toronto and other sections of Canada, Zannella et al. (2020) investigated how race and criminal history played into a landlord’s response to exonerees looking to rent a unit.
Going into the study, it was hypothesized that exonerees would have a harder time finding an apartment to rent than the general public; that Black and Indigenous renters would have a harder time than white renters; and that people with a criminal history of murder would have a harder time than those with a history of robbery (Zannella et al., 2020). Responses to apartment listings across Canada were sent by the researchers, keeping their responses identical except for criminal status and race in one part of the study and criminal status and offense in the other. Zannella et al. (2020) found that compared to the control group of members of the general public, landlords were less likely to offer availability or even respond to requests sent by people with a criminal history, for both exonerees and regular releasees. They also found that white renters had a better response rate than their Black or Indigenous counterparts, and that people with a history of murder were actually more likely to get a response than those with a history of robbery. This means that the populations who need secure housing the most (those exonerated following a wrongful conviction), and that the system owes the most to, may have the hardest time even finding a place to rent (Zannella et al., 2020). This injustice in the housing market is yet another example of the hardships exonerees face while trying to reenter society, especially when they do not have access to reentry programs designed to help prisoners secure employment and housing upon their release.
Discussion and Implications
While quantitative studies are becoming more popular, the majority of the current research assessing the reentry process following a wrongful conviction takes a qualitative approach, using interviews with exonerees to assess the struggles they face upon release. This knowledge is invaluable in starting to build reentry programs tailored to exonerees, but it also has its limitations. Jackson et al. (2021) conducted a comparison of “innocent” and “guilty” inmates, but they only collected interview responses from exonerees. The comparisons were based on exonerees’ experiences and perceptions of “guilty inmates,” not empirical data comparing both groups’ daily lives while incarcerated.
While both Jackson et al. (2021) and Shlosberg et al. (2020) worked with samples that mirrored national case data, they had small sample sizes. Jackson et al. (2020) used phone interviews in order to prevent limiting possible interviewees to a specific geographic location, but that also means that their sample was limited to those who had access to technology. Any studies conducting in-person interviews run the risk of some reentry challenges being specific to that prison population, due to location or the community surrounding the prison. This has the potential to create generalizability issues with interview-based studies. However, the use of replication studies in different geographic locations and sampling different populations of exonerees can help alleviate generalizability concerns. Lastly, while Zannella et al. (2020) conducted their study outside the United States, multiple American-based studies have found similar results in terms of exonerees (and releasees in general) struggling to find housing post-release (Baker et al., 2021; Jackson et al. 2021; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Shlosberg et al., 2020).
The current release and reentry system appears to assume that for those wrongfully convicted, simply gaining their freedom is enough to satisfy them. Research continues to demonstrate how that is not the case, and release and reentry support programs are necessary for a healthier and safer reentry process. Gould and Leo (2010) urged policymakers to make evidence-based decisions when it comes to wrongful convictions, and Jackson et al. (2021) argued for more and better training on wrongful convictions, their prevention, and their detrimental effects at every step of the criminal justice system. Shlosberg et al. (2020) and Zannella et al. (2020) both pushed for comprehensive reentry support programs for exonerees. It has been shown repeatedly that reentry programs that begin during incarceration and extend post-release have the highest likelihood of decreasing recidivism rates (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Baker, 2021; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021; Seiter & Kadela, 2003). The question that researchers continue to raise, as a result, is why these types of programs typically do not exist for wrongfully convicted individuals.
Exonerees face many of the same challenges and barriers as regular releasees (Zannella et al., 2020), but they lack the organized support and resources that are proven effective in easing the prison-community transition (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). They also often struggle with maintaining social and familial ties (Jackson et al., 2021; Shlosberg et al., 2020), which play a large role in a successful societal reintegration (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, 2018; Bales & Mears, 2008; Baker, 2021; Barrick et al., 2014; Berg & Huebner, 2011; Liu & Visher, 2021). As such, release support and post-release planning need to be available to all inmates during incarceration, and specific reentry resources and programs geared towards exonerees are necessary to help this marginalized population. The system failed them once with a miscarriage of justice, and neglecting to provide adequate support post-release is a continuation of that failure.
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