Looking Back: A Glimpse into the Suffering of Families of the Wrongfully Convicted

Jeffrey Deskovic speaking in Davis at an Annual Vanguard Event

By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

As with many walks of life, people who have similar interests or move in the same circles inevitably meet up with others who are interested in the same topics, and also acquire much of the same information. Of course, I am heavily into the anti-wrongful conviction movement, and, as such, have come across many exonerees and family members of exonerees. I would like to think of myself as a people person, and enjoy talking to new people. So throughout my journey during the two years and eight months that I have been free, I have learned much about the way that wrongful convictions affect family members on a level deeper than I realized when I myself was wrongfully incarcerated.

I understood some aspects, sure, but there were many things I wasn’t aware of; and, at times my own suffering was so great that although I was aware of some of the ways that my family suffered, I was unable to focus on it. Then, of course, there were many things that I was shielded from. I suspect that my experience in this is not atypical.

However, by being freed I have learned much about this aspect, and the thrust of this article will be sharing some of what I have learned. I will also draw from what I have learned from the experiences of my family and also from conversations with other exonerees and their family members. Because the conversations occurred while socializing and not while conducting an interview, I will respect everybody’s privacy and not reveal their names. At the same time, this article, while intended to shed light on an of misunderstood subject, is by no means an exhaustive treatment.

Come with me into a nightmare scenario, for purposes of better understanding the conditions in which you as a mother or father, have had your innocent son convicted of a murder.

When your son is wrongfully convicted, the experience of seeing him remanded into custody is both emotional and traumatic. Thoughts of what he might be thinking or experiencing, not just physically but also emotionally, fill your head. The inability to help or to do anything about it, in the immediate here and now, causes a feeling of helplessness in you. Safety for your son is a primary concern. There are some people incarcerated, after all, who are both guilty and dangerous. What do you tell your other children when they ask for their brother?

Going to his sentencing hearing is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you want to show support for your loved one and also to know what sentence will be pronounced. On the other hand, it will be traumatic to hear a long prison sentence pronounced. Thoughts of what life will be like during the next 15, 20, and 25 years without your son go through your head.

Throughout The Incarceration

While your son is incarcerated, his safety will constantly be on your mind. While you may at times get respite from this, the best that it gets is that the worries have simply gone to the back of your mind; it will never leave. You dread a phone call from the prison reporting something having happened to him. Any news you see regarding the prison on television will immediately trigger concern as to whether he is okay. Similarly, each time he is transferred will raise new safety concerns.

His incarceration will impact upon your other children. They will miss your son, and now have an awful secret to try to hide from their school friends. The other kids at school, if they find out, could wind up saying cruel things, teasing, or even trying to physically harm him. When making new friends, it can be a source of shame, and so you hide this from them and hope they never find out. It feels as though you are leading a double life.

On some weekends, when you are best able to make the long travel to visit him; because the Department of Corrections frequently houses prisoners far away from home during the first part of their sentence, you may have to beg off various invitations for social outings in order to make the trip. But you will have to lie about what your plans are for that weekend. Sometimes you wonder whether you have lost touch with reality, or whether this is really happening.

Once in a while, though you believe in him, a stray thought may lead you to wonder if he really is innocent, though globally you know he is. Accompanying that stray thought is the question, “Where did I go wrong in raising him?”

Visiting him is an elaborate process in and of itself. Firstly, it will require a long drive, typically three hours and often more. Gassing up the car to make the trip back and forth will make things expensive. Rounding out costs is that fact that you know that the food in there is so bad, so you shop for him, and you also want to leave him money.

But at times you will get frustrated when you learn, that because of some mindless rule, he can’t have certain food items. At times, if the trip is too far to make in one day or return the same day, you will have to pay for a hotel room.

Getting into the prison will sometimes require standing on lines which are deliberately made longer by processing visitors slowly. At other times you will be subjected to being talked to roughly, and if you are a woman the guards may hit on you. If this is how they talk to you, you wonder how they treat him. Sometimes you will have on a bra which has metal, which will cause the metal detector to go off, which, in turn, will lengthen the process.

Once you are actually in the visiting room, it may take 45 minutes to several hours before your son enters the room. You ask, “What took you so long”, and are told that they just now called him. Occasionally he arrives around the count time, and so for some mindless reason they will not let him in the room until after the count clears. Why they can’t take a count of the prisoners in the visiting room after admitting him escapes you.

Often your conversation will revolve around different things to be done in connection with legal appeals and attempts to regain freedom. Much of this is foreign to you, and seems to be beyond your understanding, yet you will try to learn about it. Since you are his main connection to the outside, you also become his secretary, having to make various phone calls, look things up, and perform various tasks. The changes he undergoes inside of him go largely unnoticed, because of this focus on this dominating theme.

Later, once he is released, you will discover the ways in which he has changed, and in some ways how his personality has been changed as a result of different after effects of his traumatic experience.

When it is time to go, depending on which guard is working at the visiting desk, the last point at which a visitor may leave will vary. Sometimes you will be stuck on a long line that can be as much as an hour and a half. It will break your heart to leave and not be able to take him with you, yet you have to fight yourself so that you don’t show it. The issue of visitation is divisive as you become resentful that other extended family members don’t visit him, or that they visit rarely.

Month after month, you will see the same people in the visiting room. You watch as visitors and prisoners alike age, and sometimes acquire health problems. When their visitors stop seeing them, suddenly you cease to see the familiar faces of other prisoners in the visiting room.

You will hear the hardship tales of others on the way out and in the parking lot, and you will learn about the others’ cases. You wonder if they are innocent also, or if they are guilty. Sometimes you cease seeing the familiar faces who you made pleasant small talk with because their relative has been transferred. But you have no way of knowing that. You just cease seeing them.

When your son calls collect, you discover that the calls are more expensive. Yet you don’t want to tell him not to call, especially when you can’t get up there to see him, so you have no choice but to bear the cost. Sometimes the money you send gets there after the commissary sheets have been printed, so your son must shop for hygienic items, stationary related products, and a few food items with however much money he has after working for two weeks at varying pay grades of 16¢, 22¢, 25¢, 32¢, 38¢ an hour.

Over the years, you learn about many prison rules, such as how many photocopied pages he can have in a letter (five) and what colors he is not allowed to wear. You learn that in order to be able to call you or others he will have to first place you on a calling list. After obtaining his GED, you learn that there is no college in prison for him to continue to pursue his education, and that the vocational classes offer obsolete material with some of the instructors merely there for the paycheck.

As the years go by, you are aware of the many milestones and rites of passage that he is missing. He misses births, deaths, marriages, holidays, and family gatherings. Your missing him is amplified on such occasions. You wonder whether he will ever get out, and whether you will have any grandchildren by him.

You are aware of how big a part of your world is beyond your control, instead in the grasp of the legal system. You wonder why it is that the appeals process is not as expeditious as it can be. You place your hopes in the next appellate proceeding, and you tell your son to be optimistic, that things will turn out okay. The let-down that occurs when the appeal is rubber stamp denied, despite what you, in your limited understanding, perceive to be good issues, is very hard to take.

However, you can’t show its affect because you have to encourage your son to remain optimistic and to hold on; and, that can’t happen if you go to pieces. The process begins again, and repeats, over and over again, at least five times until his appeals run out. The next problem is that once that has happened, he will no longer be provided with an attorney, and you have no money to hire one. You need an investigator as well, to try to find new evidence, but like the attorney, you need one to work for free. But you quickly learn that it is very hard to find anyone to take a case pro-bono. You are aware of his reaching out to different law firms, organizations, people and places, but nothing seems to avail. Year after year goes by.

He’s going to the Parole Board. You begin to hope again. Maybe he can regain his freedom that way. But the Parole Board doesn’t want to let even meritorious applicants go if they have been convicted of a violent crime, especially when they maintain their innocence and don’t express remorse and take responsibility. Despite staying out of trouble, he is turned down. You wonder how long you will remain in the grip of the system, and if it will ever end. You think about whether you will ever see him free. You may even wonder about your own mortality, and whether, if it does happen, you will ever live to see it. Who will be there for him if he is still imprisoned once you pass away?

Sadly, the story ends there for many people who are wrongfully convicted. But let’s assume that your son is one of the lucky ones.

Somehow, years later, he winds up with representation. New evidence is uncovered, and he is proven innocent. You are happy, and he is vindicated. In hindsight, many people now see all of the red flags regarding his conviction. You wonder why that didn’t carry the day way back when. Why did he have to lose all of those years?

He leaves prison a free man, and you discover that his personality has changed, and all the after-effects of the experience begin to manifest themselves. There are many skills he must relearn, and many he must learn for the first time. He must get used to his freedom, having choices, learning new technology.

He has lost contact with many friends. He is released with nothing. If he’s an exoneree, he can sue, and he does, but it is a long procedure.

He doesn’t have anything, and still needs to be supported. He is frequently passed over for jobs he interviews for that would provide gainful employment. Who will give him his first break to get him started? Why is nothing given to him by the state to help him get on his feet?

There are some who are afraid of him, since he spent all of that time in prison though he was innocent. That fact affects his ability to meet women and find a partner.

As the discovery process of the lawsuit progresses, you learn more and more. You realize that some foul play has been involved. How could this ever happen? You wonder why laws are not changed to prevent others from undergoing the same experience.

“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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