Bill Pelke • on how released prisoners cope
You work with people who are often released after many years in prison. How do they tend to get on? What happens to them?
Well, over 160 have been exonerated in the United States alone and each one of them responds differently. One of the sad things is that many take to drinking. It’s a problem with a number of the exonerees. Some adapt back to society very well, especially those who have family and friends. Some people are lost to their family and friends and when they get out they are alone. The organization Witness to Innocence do the best that they can to help those that need help. They have a gathering a number of times a year, and their spouses can come, so people can get to know each other.
Some have gone back to jail. Not necessarily for murder but for various crimes. A friend of mine has a good friend who got involved in drugs when he got out.
Does the State have programmes to support them?
Each US state has different laws. Some US states give compensation for wrongful conviction. But many don’t. They let a man out, give him 75 dollars and tell him ‘Goodbye’. So they’re on their own. It’s very hard for a lot of them. But the majority of people have been very supportive of a person who gets off death row and try to do for the person what they can. Like I’m from Alaska, where we don’t have the death penalty, but we’ve got a strong group of Alaskans, and each state basically has a coalition. So if somebody gets released from death row, they try to get in contact to see what kind of help he or she needs. Oftentimes they need psychological help with adapting to whole new circumstances. A dear friend of mine used to live in a small cell, so everything was within arm’s reach. When he got out and was in a house with three or four rooms, he would lose stuff because he would forget where he put it. He never lost anything when he was in his cell!
And meanwhile the world has changed…
Yeah. This guy was handed a cell phone and told ‘Someone wants to talk to you’. The guy said ‘What’s that?’
The girl that killed my grandmother was sentenced to death. She committed the crime when she was 15 years old. She was on death row for about four years and then her sentence was overturned but she still had to spend about 30 years in prison. While she was in prison, I was able to visit with her. About 14 times over a period of about 30 years. We exchanged hundreds of letters. When she got out of prison she was on, like, a probation for two years. And during that period she could not have contact with the victim’s family. Even though I had visited with her and she wanted to join the Journey folk when she got out of prison. She wanted to talk to young people who were raised abusively and say to them ‘This is what I did, this is the trouble I got into’, to give young people an alternative way to respond. But we weren’t able to have contact for two years. Three weeks before the two years were over, she committed suicide.
It was a very terrible day for a lot of people. Very tough for me. But she just felt that people were never going to forget what she did, especially her mother. She went to visit her mother on Mother’s Day, with a boyfriend she had, and told her mother ‘I would like to go to church on Sunday’. But her mother said she would not be welcome and she got very depressed. A week later was the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, so there was a lot of stuff in the newspapers again. She just felt that she had served her time but people were never going to forget or forgive.
I think she had a hard time trying to forgive herself also. She was really good in prison, especially in the last years. She mentored young women coming into prison. She just wasn’t prepared.
When you look at the support offered, do you think what is needed is more of the same? Or new, additional programmes?
A lot of times punishment is all a prison is. They don’t really try to rehabilitate you and prepare you for when you get out. For me, people should have counselling and to find out why exonerees still have a hard time dealing with things, and families as well. […] And for people who did commit a crime, to ensure that when people get out they are not going to get in the same sort of situation again. It’s tough.
Oftentimes people who gets off death row need psychological help with adapting to whole new circumstances.
Would you make a distinction between the stress that’s felt by anyone who comes out after a long prison sentence and someone who has been on death row?
Each person is different. It’s hard to say. I know a lot of people will get out and they’ll be angry and mad, but the majority of people that I have met do not have that anger. They say ‘I’ve spent all this time in prison. Now I’m out I’m not going to spend my time wanting to get back at the people who put me there in the first place.’ It’s remarkable that most exonerees have a wonderful attitude. They’re grateful to be out, to be alive. But many of them have trouble getting jobs, and when you’re in prison for a long period of time you become institutionalized. I had this one friend, when he got out – when he came to a door, he would wait for someone to say to go. He’d been told everything to do and all of a sudden it was ‘you can do whatever you want’. Or they will go into a store and there will be so many things to choose from, it will be mind-boggling to them.
When people have a chance to tell their story, it’s good for them. Most of them, when they get out they’ve left friends on death row and so they want to help their friends, they’re not going to abandon their friends. They know they have friends that were innocent and guilty. One of my friends, a man by the name of Dirk Jamieson, was on Ohio’s death row. He watched 54 of his friends that he met in prison led off. A lot of them were young people. He knows some of them were innocent and some of them were guilty, but he knew each one – and since he got out he does whatever he can to work against the death penalty. Remarkable young man.