After Chatman was free, he felt lost, Chatman said. He’d spent more than half his life in prison. He grew accustomed to the hostile guards and didn’t know life outside the cell, he said.Jeff Blackburn from the Innocence Project of Texas expressed the same thing to me when I was in Dallas last fall for their benefit, that more than a few of the dozens of inmates exonerated by DNA evidence had spent more than half their lives in prison and weren't fully prepared to re-enter the free world without a great deal of personalized support.
Chatman’s family carried him through most of the tough times, he said. After his release, Chatman stayed with his 43-year-old nephew Larry — the relative who came to see him once a month throughout most of his time in prison. On Jan. 18, Chatman moved into his Carrollton apartment.
Still, the rehabilitation process has been slow, Chatman said.
“When you get out like I did, we are just virtually dumped back into society,” he said.
He cited halfway houses, job opportunities and transportation available for prisoners out on parole. But, none of those options were available to Chatman, he said.
“Really, I am not a parolee,” he said. “Had it not been for the family support I had, I’d probably be like some of those other guys. Some end right back up in the penitentiary.”
Chatman has been offered $50,000 per year for the 27 years he was imprisoned, as compensation for his incorrect verdict. The money comes with a promise not to sue Dallas County. However, he is “leaning toward” filing a lawsuit instead, he said.
“I’m trying to absolve all this,” he said. “I’m angry at the judicial system.”
Think about it: If Chatman went to prison in 1980, Jimmy Carter was president and there's a decent chance the last stereo he owned was an 8-track. Said the Leader, "Chatman forgets that his Razr cell phone is attached to his belt. And to answer a call, he often hangs up while trying to press the 'talk' button. He uses his computer to play chess but is afraid to venture into cyberspace."
Keep in mind, folks, the reason the Carrollton Leader cares about this story is because Chatman was innocent. But 70,000 inmates per year leave Texas prisons, many of them after completing long sentences that leave them facing all the same obstacles as Chatman to successful rehabilitation: Worse, the felony on their record means they can't find housing and are barred from many jobs.
These days because of rapid technological advances, just five years spent out of the work force, much less 15, 25 or more, can make a person's work skills nearly irrevocably out of date. There's little programming left in the Texas prison system to train inmates with skills they'll need when they get back to the free world. So what happens to them then? If the innocent have trouble adjusting when they leave prison, how much more difficult are things for someone who's on parole for something they did?
Chatman should be financially okay: State law mandates he be compensated $50K per year for each year incarcerated (that'd be around $1.3 million before Uncle Sam's bite), and it sounds like he may decide to sue for even more. (Grits has discussed before the difficulties of assigning a monetary value to a wrongful conviction.) But whatever the monetary settlement it will take years for the emotional scars to heal, if they ever can: Nobody can give you back ages 20-47; once they've been taken from you, they're gone.