Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exonerated man faces difficulties adjusting to free world life

Charles Chatman was released last month from a Texas prison after doing 27 years for a crime he did not commit. But the Carrollton Leader ("Wrongfully convicted prisoner relocates to Carrollton," Feb. 26) reports that things haven't been so easy once he got out, or as he put it, since he was "dumped back into society":
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.

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.”
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Especially those years taken from you were spent in such an environment. I worked there for over a decade a feel for those wrongfully convicted, and those who have to work in that environment as well.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to present this thought to help folks to assess the damage done by imprisonment.

Imagine being 47 years old with the emotional maturity of a 20 year old. No job, no wife, no children, no nothing for 27 years does not allow the maturing process to ------ proceed.

Adding the fact that this man was innocent and the entire situation becomes totally incomprehensible.

Anonymous said...

I hope he researches before he sue's and gets a good attorney that will not take the major part of the settlement and leave him with less than 50 grand a year.

Anonymous said...

No job, no wife, no children,


and leave him with less than 50 grand a year.

I don't think that's his main concern right now.

Anonymous said...

He can't make it in the free world so he might sue for more money.Gee if I had more money I can make it.There are jobs out there.If he has no criminal record he can work for TYC or TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

Being locked up for 27 yrs he had a wife or husband.

Sam said...

I could not imagine the horror of it, locked up for 27 years for a crime you did not commit. $50,000 per year is really not enough especially if Uncle Sam gets to tax it.
Will he also get therapy? job training? any host of things that he will need to re-learn to adjust back to life on the ouside. Not to mention the folks just waiting to prey on him because they'll want a piece of the action.

I would not encourage him to sue because he may get less, particularly if he gets someone to do it for 40% plus contingency fee.

Good luck to you, Sir.

Anonymous said...

Chatman is another excellent example of the dysfunctional corrections system. Our prisons are not designed to prepare inmates to re-enter society, and 95% of them do. Instead the focus is on longer sentences...lock'em up and throw away the key. We all know this has not and can not work. Despite that, no politicians or corrections officials are offering creative solutions. Whether it is TYC or TDCJ, old ways of doing things persist.
Surely it is time to re-invent corrections and base changes on evidence and common sense.
However, even if we designed and operated prisons that taught responsibility, respect, cooperation, and self respect and self support, there would still be an unending stream of new inmates ready to fill more cells. This is because there is little emphasis on the origins of criminal behavior. Most inmates don't become criminals overnight. They are usually the ones left behind in school....they are the ones from dysfunctional families....they are the ones our society allows to mature into criminal behavior. So, while changes are needed in many areas, the primary changes required are in the vision of our lawmakers. Current policy has been based primarily on emotion and impulse. Let's give reason and common sense a chance!

Anonymous said...

The government has screwed his life up enough. Why should he trust anything it offers. He can sit around and wait for a handout from the state for whatever, or he can take the 50 thou a year and get on with the rest of his life. I hope he takes the latter.

Anonymous said...

I second anon who feels the dysfunctional system must be changed. HOWEVER, it will not change itself. People cannot allow those who have created and continued this mess to stay in control. One out of Twenty four people in Texas are under the supervision of tdcj. It sounds like a police state. Speak up, the abuses in this system are both inhumane and unconstitutional. Change must happen.

Anonymous said...

Rehabilitation in either TDCJ or CJAD (probation) is a joke. If they're not making money off of it, it's not worth it to them. Sure, pay him the money, but don't bother with the trouble of helping him find a place to live, let alone getting him some career and personal counseling, of which he will require a ton of both if he is to ever have any semblance of a normal life again. We don't do enough. How many times are we going to have to say this before someone will listen?