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How To Compensate For 26 Years In Prison

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How To Compensate For 26 Years In Prison

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How To Compensate For 26 Years In Prison

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. After spending 26 years in a Michigan prison for a crime he did not commit, Walter Swift walked free this year. He was exonerated. Like many others, he left state custody with practically nothing. Most states do not compensate people who've been wrongfully imprisoned, and there's a battle underway now to change that. Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Over the course of his long prison term, Walter Swift had opportunities to get paroled, and he turned them down. In order to qualify for parole, he had to admit his guilt, and he refused to do that.

Mr. WALTER SWIFT (Exonerated Convict): I spent 26 years, seven days a week, literally, hoping.

HEADLEE: DNA evidence exonerated Swift in May, and when the prison door finally opened, he was overwhelmed.

Mr. SWIFT: When I first stepped out, the first thing I encountered was flashing cameras and throngs of people, screaming, yelling, and clapping. And I'm like, wow, what is this?

HEADLEE: The initial euphoria exonerees may feel is often replaced by despair and frustration when they realize they have no resources.

Mr. SWIFT: After the cameras go away, people just forget about you.

HEADLEE: Ken Wyniemko was convicted and imprisoned in 1994 for rape and robbery and then freed in 2003. He says he would've gotten more support from the state when he left prison if he'd actually been guilty.

Mr. KEN WYNIEMKO (Exonerated Convict): If you are in prison in the state of Michigan for a crime that you did actually commit, and you're released on parole, the state will help you find housing. They'll help you find clothing. They'll help you get job training.

HEADLEE: In fact, Wyniemko had to pay restitution to the victim in his case, and to this day, that money has not been returned, even though police say they've caught the actual perpetrator. Wyniemko says he was lucky to have a ride home on the day he left prison.

Mr. WYNIEMKO: I didn't have a car. I didn't have anything. I didn't have anything. I didn't have a penny to my name when I walked out.

HEADLEE: Wyniemko now runs a foundation that advocates for compensation laws. Reparation for the wrongly convicted varies widely among the states that give anything at all. Louisiana gives up to 100,000 dollars. In Texas, it's 50,000 dollars per year of imprisonment, unless you were on death row, and then it doubles. Nationwide DNA evidence has exonerated 218 people, but only half have been compensated.

Ms. OLGA AKSELROD (Innocence Project, New York): We can't give Walter Swift back 26 years of his life. We can't give that back to his family.

HEADLEE: Olga Akselrod is with the Innocence Project in New York.

Ms. AKSELROD: But at minimum, we should give some supports, so that that road to rebuilding his life is as smooth as possible.

HEADLEE: We spoke to Swift the day after he walked out of jail in May. He said he was just hoping to find a job and a place to live.

Mr. SWIFT: You know, I haven't had a pillow in 26 years, things like that. I haven't had a decent pair of socks in 26 years, basic simple things that people take for granted.

HEADLEE: But when we spoke to him recently, he was frustrated and surprised

Mr. SWIFT: I literally went through pure hell just to get ID card. When the state requires you to have an ID card.

HEADLEE: Still, Walter Swift was luckier than most exonerees. One of the women at the Innocence Project who championed his case is an Irish business woman of some standing. She flew him to her home country and held fundraisers for him. On his first day there, Swift received about 26,000 dollars in donations.

Mr. SWIFT: Had it not been for the people that - like, private citizens (unintelligible) from Ireland and the beautiful people of Ireland and a lot of other people, I'd have been living on the street.

Mr. WYNIEMKO: He spent 26 years in Michigan's prison system, and he has more support in a foreign country than he does in our own state. That really bothers me, and that whole concept has to change.

HEADLEE: Ken Wyniemko says many exonerees are ignored by their own communities, and Scott Thornsley agrees. Thornsley teaches criminal justice at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. He says one man in his state, Nick Yarris, was released in 2004 after spending 21 years on death row for attempted murder.

Dr. SCOTT THORNSLEY (Criminal Justice Department, Mansfield University): He's been received better in Europe than he has in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, he's a non-person because we are embarrassed over what happened to him.

HEADLEE: Thornsley says his research shows most people think state should compensate the wrongly imprisoned. Back in Michigan, State Representative Steve Bieda is trying to get his state to make good. He's been working for years on a bill to offer money to exonerees.

State Representative STEVE BIEDA (Democrat, Michigan): Strangely enough, people may look at it as being soft on crime, even though these people are innocent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEADLEE: Bieda hopes to get it passed before he's term-limited out of office in January.

State Rep. BIEDA: Frankly, a lot of people have wondered why I spent as much time on it because, frankly, there are not a lot of voters that are going to be impacted by this. But it is such an outrageous scourge of justice.

HEADLEE: And that means these bills often have trouble gaining political momentum. Again, Mansfield University's Scott Thornsley.

Dr. THORNSLEY: We just have no patience, no compassion for those who have been released from prison, whether they have been rightfully convicted or wrongfully convicted. They represent to us an unknown quantity.

HEADLEE: We tried to speak with legislators who voted against compensation bills in the past. None would go on record to explain why. So, until all states start paying people who've been unjustly imprisoned, many will remain charity cases. Here in Michigan, another man earned his freedom this year. Nathaniel Hatchett was cleared of rape charges after more than 11 years in jail. Fellow exoneree Walter Swift says he knows Hatchett, and he's struggling.

Mr. SWIFT: He got out of prison maybe six, seven weeks before me, and he's nearly starving, as we speak.

HEADLEE: The Innocence Project held a fundraiser for Hatchett in July. It brought in just 2,000 dollars, not at all what Swift got from the Irish people. But for Hatchett, it's a start. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee, in Detroit.

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