For 27 years I have seen people enter prison under all kinds of circumstances.
Some say they were in a crash while driving under the influence, and they got a 15-years-to-life sentence because someone died. Some say they were on a drug binge and killed someone in a moment of panic when the owners of a house they were burglarizing came home.
A guy might be sorry for what he did and might have eradicated drugs from his life a little too late. Many of the people I see come from neighborhoods where crime and gangs are the norm, and whose families and friends are used to visiting loved ones in prison.
From time to time, though, I see an unfortunate guy who looks out of place because he is innocent.
It is easy to see who the innocent are when you come across them. They usually have never been in prison before. They have good manners. They have no interest in crimes. They may seem like the guy next door, an average Joe. I can tell who they are because I can see the pain in their eyes and hear it in their voices. The innocent in prison suffer more than anyone else.
Their friends and family are not used to prison, so the letters and visits are few and far between. They might see a prisoner as an embarrassment. The prisoner becomes out of sight, out of mind and then they are all alone.
The guilty can also lose touch with friends and family over the years; but for the innocent, the situation is worse. For many innocents, their relationships dwindle down to just their mothers, because a mother is the one person who will never abandon her baby. Those who are seasoned in the prison system get more visits, more letters and, believe it or not, more love than the innocent do.
The innocents enter a hostile world. There is no survival manual for them. They have to figure things out on their own. They are different from the rest of the prisoners, and that can be a recipe for disaster — they can end up as prey for bullies. It is like being lost in a foreign country filled with malefactors.
Even though they are in the minority, there are more innocent people in prison than most people think. In California, circumstantial evidence is enough to get a person convicted of murder and handed a sentence of life with out parole.
A wrongful conviction could happen to anyone. Reach out to them. Help them heal.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.