The Plight of the Wrongfully Convicted

by Candace Marra

One of the things I often think about in terms of Scott Peterson’s conviction, is the emotional impact this experience may have on him for the rest of his life.  No matter how strong a person he is, I have always thought that this experience would undermine Scott’s trust in the system and also in people in general. I can’t help but think there must be some anger there, fueled by the betrayals and injustice.  I have spent a great deal of time trying to put myself in the shoes of a man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.  Dr. Adrian Grounds, a University Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychiatry at the Institute of Criminology and Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, UK, has taken this a step further by conducting an in-depth study of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted.  Although I had already surmised that the effects of wrongful conviction would be profound and lasting, I found myself horrified by the specific pain and suffering these people experience, which Dr. Grounds uncovered in his interviews with actual people who had been through it.

Profile of Subjects Studied

Dr. Grounds interviewed 26 men and one woman for this study.  They had served from nine months to 25 years behind bars for crimes they were later cleared of.  Nineteen of them had a total of 43 children under age 16 at the time of their conviction.  Twelve of the men still lived with their wives.  In these 12 families, there were 20 children under age 6, 11 children ages 6-10, and 3 children ages 11-15. The average age at the time of arrest was 32 years old.  The average age at the time of release was 42.  There was no history of psychological illness in anyone who participated in this study.    


Dr. Grounds was surprised at the results of this study.  In these people, none of whom had previous psychological or psychiatric disorders, this is what he found after they were exonerated: 

In addition, these exonerees experienced a total loss of family life as a result of their wrongful convictions.  Many were incarcerated while their children grew up.  Some of them also experienced the death of their parents while in prison. Only three of the marriages survived.  They lost everything.

Understanding the Experience

Acute Trauma

When a person is wrongfully convicted, his life as he knows it is robbed from him.  He finds himself portrayed in a negative light to all who know him and love him, and to many who do not know him.  If the case is a high profile case, this is even more pronounced.  He finds that everything he believed to be true about the world was wrong.  He believed in the justice system, and the justice system turned on him.  He believed that if he worked hard in life and made an honest living, that he would be rewarded.  He believed if he obeyed the law, that he would not be prosecuted.

The arrest is often sudden and unexpected.  Everything in the person’s life comes to a sudden halt, and he finds himself faced with overwhelming circumstances. 

Chronic Trauma

The long-term effects of wrongful incarceration include isolation, prolonged stress, and preoccupation with the problem.  The innocent convict finds himself in a situation in which all the rules have changed and he must develop new coping skills.  His life focus also changes dramatically as he becomes consumed with seeking his freedom and clearing his name.

Long-Term Imprisonment

Long-term imprisonment carries with it a lot of trauma for an innocent convict.  Prison life brings about the constant threat of violence, resulting in pervasive fear.  It also carries with it a long-term separation from family.  There is also the separation from the world.  When he is eventually exonerated, he goes out into the world with the expectation that the world is going to be the same place he left.  Yet the longer he has been incarcerated, the more the world will have changed.  Many of the exonerees in Dr. Grounds’ study found that they were unable to assimilate back into the world.  ATM machines were brand-new to them.  Computers had become a much more prominent aspect of daily life.  Their job experience was obsolete.  They no longer had the skills needed to survive in the world.

The Impact

When a convict is exonerated and subsequently freed from prison after years of incarceration, many in the public see the situation as a miscarriage of justice that is finally corrected—a wrong that has been made right.  Seeing a wrongfully convicted inmate freed from prison can be a thrilling experience as one tries to imagine how good life must now be for that person.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that a whole new set of difficulties rears its ugly head, not only for the exoneree, but also for the family.  Sadly, these effects don’t go away when the person is released from prison.  In fact, in most cases, the effects are not fully realized until  after the person is released from prison.

Psychological Impact

Dr. Grounds observed a pronounced sense of hopelessness in many of his subjects.  Many of them sought to live in isolation, as they felt they had no purpose in life, no place in the world.  They experienced bitterness and a loss of joy.  Some of them experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, which is typically seen in individuals who experience a sudden disruption in their lives.  Some of these symptoms include panic attacks, fear, and violent outbursts. 

They experienced enduring personality changes.  Although they had no history of violence or explosive behavior, many of them took on these traits.  Some became alcoholics.  Some just withdrew.

Many found themselves unable to relate with people in the outside world.  They had adapted to prison life and only knew how to relate to other inmates and guards.  The longer the time in prison, the more pronounced this was.  The world had continued to progress.  Upon release, many were surprised to find that the world was no longer the place it was.  Some did not know how to operate ATM machines, computers, and other forms of technology that had emerged or advanced during their time behind bars.

A newly released inmate often finds himself dislocated in time.  He may shop for things that were in vogue during the time before he was incarcerated.  He may look for appliances similar to what he was used to before that time.  He also no longer has anything in common with any of his peers.  They have moved on with their lives and changed along with the rest of the world.    

Due to the constant threat and experiences of violence, many had to learn coping skills for survival in prison.  Some accomplished this through withdrawal.  Some accomplished this through becoming intimidating themselves. They were not able to leave these coping methods behind in prison; rather they took them with them out into the world.  While these coping skills were effective in prison, they were not effective in the outside world, and were, in fact, quite dysfunctional.   

Impact on Families

This dysfunction was most apparent in their family lives.  Many of these exonerees were unable to fit in with their families after release.  In his interviews with the families of the exonerees, Dr. Grounds found that the common thread in all the families was that the person was not the same.  They complained that they felt like strangers.  Many of the wives had become single moms and learned to cope without them.  Many of the children had grown older or grown up completely and no longer had the same emotional bond to the exoneree.  In one situation, a wrongfully convicted father waited eight years to get out of the prison just so he could take his seven-year-old daughter to the cinema one more time.  She was fifteen by the time he was released, and as soon as he brought up the idea, she let him know in no uncertain terms that she would be embarrassed to be seen at the movies with her dad.  He laughed it off at the time, but it hurt him deeply.

In the husbands who returned home after years of incarceration, the wives complained they had become strangers.  There was an emptiness there.  The family bond seemed to be gone.  The exonerated husband felt like he was taking care of someone else’s children.  He was no longer able to enjoy them.  He no longer knew them.  Some of these men described to Dr. Grounds how they would sit in prison staring at the photos of their children, trying to imagine what they looked like so many years later.  When they finally returned home, they realized they didn’t even know their children anymore.  There was a permanent loss of closeness.  Irreversible damage was done.

The psychological damage also extended to the other members of the family. When a man is convicted, his family has to learn to survive without him.  In addition, the wife and children often experience a fear of retaliation, especially if the case has been prominent in the news.  Children are often made fun of in school because their dad is behind bars.  People who are sympathetic to the victims may harass the family.  At the same time, the father is absent, and there is no child support.  As a result, many of these families go into poverty.  In Dr. Grounds’ study, the children complained about a loss of childhood as they had to learn to quickly become self-sufficient.  As the family adjusts to all of these changes, the father loses his place in the family.

In the cases Dr. Grounds studied, husband and wife alike experienced guilt over all these circumstances.  Everyone had changed.  They no longer knew each other, and in many cases, both found themselves feeling that they would be better off if the husband were still incarcerated.

Types of Support Needed

Innocent convicts face a lot of unique challenges  Often, parole boards will not grant parole because they continue to insist on their innocence.  This is viewed as a failure to take responsibility for their crimes.  If they are released as a result of having been exonerated, they do not receive any support services to help them transition back into society, as rightfully convicted inmates do. 

Finding housing and employment are daunting tasks.   They often don’t have job skills because the skills they had going into prison have become obsolete in the ever-changing world.  They are often stigmatized by employers because of their time in prison.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve been cleared of the crime—employers are still uneasy about hiring people who have spent time in prison.  In addition, there is a long gap in their resume, corresponding to the length of time spent in prison. 

Most states do not allow for wrongfully convicted inmates to receive any monetary compensation.  And of the few that do, many require the inmate to prove his innocence first.  Some only offer a minuscule amount.  Those fortunate enough to receive compensation upon release often give it away to their estranged families or other supportive persons. 

Universally, the one thing wrongfully convicted inmates report they need is an acknowledgement from the government that the conviction was wrong.  A formal apology, or a declaration of innocence.  I got the impression that this was more important to them than receiving monetary compensation or assistance with the practical needs of life.  This acknowledgement was something they were desperate for.  Sadly, very few have ever received it.

There is precious little clinical literature available to help ascertain exactly what services are needed to help these exonerees re-assimilate into society.  The best sources of information are sources that discuss war veterans returning home, literature about chronic psychological trauma, and literature about the effects of parental loss and separation.  The mental health field is poorly equipped to help exonerees because there is very little understanding about their unique needs.

In one situation, a newly exonerated man entered a counseling office in his pursuit of therapy to help him overcome his wrongful conviction.  He noticed a camera in the room, and that the counselor was using a notepad.  The situation took him back to the police interrogation, and he had a violent outburst as a result of his post-traumatic stress disorder.  This situation could have been prevented if the mental health counselor had been properly educated about the unique challenges and needs of these individuals.

There are a number of things that could be done to help an exoneree ease his way back into society.  The following services would greatly enhance the exoneree’s chances of successfully assimilating back into the world:

Pre-release:  Counseling and education for the family, so that the family will be better equipped to continue to support the exoneree as he re-learns how to live his life on the outside.

Upon release:  Practical assistance and a friend.  This would include job training and learning about the changes in the world since his incarceration.  It is also extremely important that the exoneree have a friend that he can count on for advocacy, guidance, and moral support.  The exoneree should also receive cash to compensate him for his time spent in prison, for lost wages, and for the practical needs in life, such as a home and car purchase.

Post-release: The inmate needs continued long-term counseling.  Since the mental health field is poorly equipped for this, it is important that specialists are trained for this service, especially since wrongful convictions are becoming frightfully common.

Appreciating the Plight of the Wrongfully Convicted

As this session came to a close, I was filled with such sadness for those who have been wrongfully convicted.  I began to desperately try to think of something I could do about it.  There isn’t enough help out there for these people.  If only I had furthered my education, I told myself.  I thought about going back to school just so I could help these people.  I wondered to myself how hard it would be to start a non-profit organization to help them upon their release.  It is already so unfair that they spend all that time behind bars, but then they finally get out, and they can’t even pick up where they left off.  Not only have they lost the time they spent behind bars, but they’ve also essentially lost their lives.  Somebody has got to give them their lives back. 

I thought about the anguish innocent people surely experience during all those years behind bars, knowing their lives are just wasting away and they are missing the best years of their lives and the lives of their families.  I thought about the sad fate of the families left behind while the innocent person languishes in prison.  Then I thought about the extreme feelings of disappointment that must wash over all parties when the person is finally exonerated and released, but life does not return to normal.  I wondered if that blow feels even crueler than the wrongful conviction that was dealt to them previously.

These people are normal people like you and me. They are doctors, police officers, office workers, salesmen, laborers, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, neighbors. They are people who each belong to a family, and who went to college or perhaps went into business for themselves. Or they just worked hard in whatever job they could find. In any case, they worked hard to make an honest living. They are law-abiding citizens who did their best in life. They invested time and resources to make their contributions to society, to be the best they could be. They were family men and women who were working hard to save for their children’s future, to one day buy that dream house, or to just make ends meet while hoping for better times in the future. And all for nothing. All so they could languish away in a prison cell for someone else’s crime while their families went into poverty. And even if they are lucky enough to be exonerated, they don’t get their lives back. All they get are cruel reminders of what once was, but is no more, and can never be again. Broken family ties; a world that no longer has room for them; an inability to cope. 

The losses are immeasurable.  And there is nobody to help them—nobody who understands.  If they had been released from prison after a long sentence for a crime of which they were guilty, they would have had support.  They would have had help learning job skills and securing employment,   They would have had help finding housing and transportation.  But since they were innocent, they are left to find their way in the world all on their own.  They are treated worse than real criminals by far.  They are left out in the cold.   They are given the impossible task of re-assimilating into a world they no longer know.  They are expected to go on with their lives as if it had never happened, without even a simple apology from the government who had robbed them of everything by disregarding their most basic civil liberties. 

I attended the Unlocking Innocence conference thinking I would find something that would be of help in our quest to see Scott Peterson exonerated.  But now it’s so much bigger than Scott Peterson.  Certainly, I have gained a more vivid picture of what he is going through, and what he can expect, depending on how much time he spends behind bars before being exonerated.  But I also know he is not the only one, and that exoneration and release are not enough to correct the wrong that has been done to Scott or to any other innocent inmate. 

Sometimes I wish we weren’t so limited as people.  I wish I could stop wrongful conviction from happening.  I wish I could raise awareness to the whole world about the problem of wrongful conviction.  I wish I could make the world care about those that this happens to, so that when they are finally released, the world opens its arms to them.  I wish I could make the world a hospitable place for them.  I wish I could give back everything that has been stolen from them.  I wish I could be an advocate for each and every one of them.  I wish I could pay for all of them to go to school and re-gain job skills in whatever fields they want to work in.  I wish I could mend all of their broken family ties.  I wish I could remove the stigma they are branded with for having spent time in prison.  I wish I could give them back all the time they lost.  I wish I could apologize to each and every one of them on behalf of the government that wrongfully convicted them.

And how I wish the whole world would become outraged at every single wrongful conviction that happens, so that the whole world would work together to see that it never happens again, and that those who have been wrongfully convicted already are given every single advantage imaginable—free schooling, millions of dollars, counseling, and whatever else they need.

Words fail to paint a perfect picture of the outrage and sadness wrongful conviction brings up in me.  I want to act, but I don’t know what to do.  I feel so powerless.  The problem is so big, and I am so small.  As Janet Reno mentioned in her keynote address, we must raise awareness about the problem of wrongful conviction.  We simply must get the message out, that wrongful convictions are happening in epidemic proportions.  And just look at the damage they cause!  It has been said before that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.  Every time an innocent man enters a prison cell, evil is triumphing.  We cannot, we must not, do nothing and let this go on.  Even if only one innocent man in the whole world were behind bars, we would have reason to be outraged.  As it is, there are untold hundreds in the United States alone.  I hope everyone who knows this is as outraged as I am.

Dr. Adrian Grounds is an Honorary Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, and a Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge. In addition to research and teaching in the University he provides a community forensic psychiatry service in the Huntingdon locality and Littlehey Prison, Cambridgeshire. He is a Sentence Review Commissioner and Life Sentence Review Commissioner in Northern Ireland, a Trustee of the Prison Reform Trust, and currently Academic Secretary of the Forensic Psychiatry Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He has published widely on aspects of forensic psychiatry, has acted as an expert witness in criminal cases and inquiries, and has extensive experience of assessing victims of wrongful conviction and imprisonment in relation to compensation. He provided testimony in the inquiry regarding the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of Thomas Sophonow. (Information provided by the Unlocking Innocence conference)