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For wrongfully convicted Black men, exoneration can be just as traumatizing as prison

Black people are wrongfully convicted at a higher rate — and pay a high price even after being exonerated.
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Thomas Raynard James at home in Miami on June 24. Saul Martinez for NBC News

When 56-year-old Herman Atkins went just about anywhere, he had a routine: stop at a convenience store when he left the house, look into the security camera, make a minor purchase like gum or a soda, and always secure a receipt. At home in Southern California, he would file the receipts in a folder and place it in a file cabinet.

He did this for years, filling a room in his home with the documentation of his daily whereabouts. Atkins spent 12 years in prison before he was exonerated for a crime he did not commit. This was his way of avoiding another misidentification that could land him behind bars.

Atkins’ actions are not unfamiliar to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, illustrating the devastation often overlooked that exonerated people endure as they try to re-enter society. Stories of exoneration often draw media attention and incite public joy, but they do not include the aftermath, the life once the cameras leave. Those who have been exonerated, psychologists who treat them and lawyers who represent them say their re-emergence into the world after prison produces potentially lifelong challenges with self-esteem, employment, depression and other issues that affect them and their families.

“It’s PTSD that all of us in this sort of fraternity suffer,” Atkins, who was cleared of rape in 2000 by DNA evidence, said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Being in prison when you know you shouldn’t be there is hard to describe. It’s crushing. And then all those years pass — years where you are fearful of death almost every second, conditioned in ways that bring on paranoia and anger."

"And then suddenly, finally, you are free." 

Herman Atkins
Herman Atkins, at his home on July 27, 2006, in Fresno, Calif. Atkins spent more than eight years in jail until DNA evidence proved his innocence. Gary Kazanjian / AP file

“And you’re dropped into society so damaged that you don’t know how to fit in,” he added. “That’s the part of these exonerations that people don’t realize. They think you’re fine because you’re finally free, and you look, on the outside, like you’re fine. But you’re not. On the inside, you’re spinning. You’re lost and struggling with so much. It’s hard.”

Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites, according to the National Registry of Exonerations

The registry — run by the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine — also noted that although just 13% of the population is Black, 47% of the known exonerations are of Black people.

“The reality for African Americans in this country is that you’re guilty. Period,” said Joanne Frederick, a veteran psychologist who specializes in treating patients with anxiety and depression, among other concerns, in the Washington, D.C., area. She’s also treated exonerated Black men. 

“In these exonerated people, I see an increased anxiety and depression from first being accused of something they did not do, being convicted in court, which is trauma,” Frederick said. “Then they go through the prison system, which is another level of trauma. And then they are proven innocent, exonerated, and there’s more trauma because suddenly they are lost, searching where to fit in the world. Paranoid. Anxious. Depressed. Angry. It’s a lot that the average person doesn’t take into consideration. They think, ‘Well, they are out, free. Everything is great.’ It’s the exact opposite.”

Atkins, who is in law school with plans to work on exoneration cases, speaks publicly across the country about the impact of wrongful incarcerations. He said the feelings that come with being released can be all-encompassing.

“There’s the feeling of not wanting anyone standing behind you because of what you’ve seen in prison,” he said. “There’s not wanting to be in crowded places because bad things happen in prison in crowded places. There’s the feeling of being insufficient because you’re so behind with technology and how the world works. There’s a lack of trust in people, because you trusted the people and the system that put you in prison. It goes on and on.”

Thomas Raynard James can attest. In April, he was released in Miami after 32 years in prison for a murder it was proven that he did not commit. Since then, he has presented a public veneer that shows a smiling, carefree man who is embracing being able to roam anywhere he wants for the first time in three decades.

Image: Thomas Raynard James and his mother Doris Strong at their home in Miami on June 24, 2022.
Thomas Raynard James and his mother, Doris Strong, at their home in Miami on June 24.Saul Martinez for NBC News

The reality is that James is so traumatized that he does not openly speak of the adjustments he is struggling to make because “people will think I’m crazy,” he said.

James did share that he had been so accustomed in prison to sleeping on a narrow, thin mattress that on the king-size bed at his mother’s home, he placed objects on more than half of it to simulate the cramped quarters he had been forced to endure in prison. 

“I made it so it was like in prison, where I couldn’t turn over,” he said. “I know that’s hard to imagine for people that I don’t enjoy more space. But that’s my reality.”

Image: Diplomas and photographs of family members visiting Thomas Raynard James while in prison.
Diplomas and photographs of family members visiting Thomas Raynard James while in prison.Saul Martinez for NBC News

S. Kent Butler, the former president of the American Counseling Association who has treated exonerated men during his career as a psychologist, said the lack of care for wrongfully convicted people has contributed to them being “re-traumatized” as free people and contributes to many of their failures to expand as people.

“I call it CTSD — continuing traumatic stress disorder,” Butler said. “What typically happens is they are left hanging with how to re-enter into society and how to deal with the stigma that’s attached to that. And part of that stigma is people who are looking at them as not being innocent of the crime, even though it’s been proven they are innocent. That’s hard to deal with, especially on top of the other elements that come with having no support.”

In 2002, Brian Banks, a star high school football player in California, was convicted of raping a classmate. Later, she admitted that she had fabricated her accusation — after Banks served five years and two months in prison and another five years wearing an ankle monitor. The charges and his status as a registered sex offender were dropped in 2012, after the accuser admitted she had lied about him sexually attacking her.

Brian Banks, Leomia Myers, Jonathan Banks
Brian Banks with his parents, Leomia Myers and Jonathan Banks, outside court after his rape conviction was dismissed on May 24, 2012, in Long Beach, Calif.Nick Ut / AP file

“Even after 10 years of being free, it is something that I am still constantly working on every single day,” said Banks, who is on the National Registry of Exonerations advisory board. “The re-adaptation to society is an everyday process. We’re talking about somebody who has lived the worst day of his life repeatedly for the length of time he’s in prison for something he did not do. It does something to the psyche, to your spirituality. It does something to the way you see the world, to the way you trust people or the way you view people’s motives.”

James said his relief from being exonerated was undermined every time someone told him, “‘I don’t care what the court says or the evidence says, you’re still guilty.’”

He earned multiple certifications while in prison in an attempt to keep his mind sharp on the off chance that he would be released. He read magazines on technology. But when he tried to purchase a bottle of water at a Miami Heat NBA game, he was told the arena was cashless. “I hadn’t heard that before,” he said. “So, money’s no good? It shocked me.”

While Atkins never sought therapy, he went on to college and earned a degree in psychology. “I thought I was doing it so I could help others, but I was the one who needed the help,” he said.

James, who said he is living off proceeds from his book and a GoFundMe campaign, said he has been seeing two therapists weekly, one recommended by the Miami organization Circle of Brotherhood, a collection of Black men who work to support their communities. 

“I appear to be a functioning human being and everything seems to be OK,” James said. “But I haven’t gotten comfortable enough to really open up so they can go inside my mind and really see what’s going on so I can confront it.”

This sense of trauma and disruption funnels to the exonerated families, too. 

“Going to prison for something you didn’t do for a long length of time is like dying and going to your grave,” Banks said. “Your family grieves, and they cry over you and they pray over you and they miss you and they love you.”

But eventually, even family members can move on from grief. 

“So when you come home, everyone’s excited to see you, but they’ve already developed this new life that doesn’t include you,” Banks added. 

James has felt that, too. He lives with his 81-year-old mother and desperately seeks financial stability. Because he had a prior gun possession charge, he is ineligible to seek restitution from Florida because of its “clean hands provision” that disallows a felon to sue.

Natlie Figgers, the attorney in Coral Springs, Florida, who led the charge for James release, said it is agonizing watching her client grapple with returning to society and struggle financially. “It’s hard to see his disappointment with that,” she said.

“You can take my life away from me, send me to these horrible prisons for 32 years, admit you made a mistake and set me free — but I can’t get compensated for all I lost?” Thomas said. “No amount of money will be equal to what they took from me. But I should be able to get something; someone should have to pay for what they did to me. When you’re talking about exonerated people, we’re dealing with a closed-heart society. That’s wrong and just makes it harder for us.”

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