Health

Exonerees Face Mental Health Challenges After Prison (VIDEO)

Newsy spoke to two people who have lost decades of their lives due to crimes they didn’t commit and how they deal with all that stolen time.

Johnny Pinchback spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

“It was hell, here on earth,” he said. “Pure hell.”

Pinchback was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

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“Man, it’s very painful, very painful,” he continued. “A whole bunch of guys who were sent there for rape crimes and child abuse, who couldn’t defend themselves – they were raped, beaten up and raped themselves, and so many of them committed suicide.”

Thanks to DNA evidence and the Texas Innocence Project, Pinchback has been a free man for 11 years, but says his adjustment to society has been his own challenge.

“After I got out, you know, I was lost, man,” Pinchback said. “When I got out, it was a shock, man. It was a cultural shock.”

Despite how tough his experience has been on his psyche, Pinchback says formal therapy didn’t work for him.

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“They sent some of us there,” he said. “We were like, ‘Man, we’re doing counseling and doing therapy for each other.’ And that’s what we did.”

Chantal Fahmy is a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and has spent her career studying the former inmates.

She says returning to society is its own punishment and takes its toll mentally.

“Their education hasn’t really changed that much, so it’s not like they’re getting jobs that they couldn’t get before,” she said. “They are not eligible for many forms of public assistance, such as welfare. They are alienated from ordinary life, period.”

A University of Chicago study compares the mental toll of unjust imprisonment with the pain experienced by military veterans and torture survivors.

Researchers say common effects among the freedmen include severe PTSD, persistent personality changes, depression and complex feelings of loss.

Fahmy says resources specifically for freedmen are very limited, but for anyone leaving prison, family support can have a positive effect.

“If you have a solid support system in both ways, be it from family or friends, your mental health is better,” she said.

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Anna Vasquez spent 13 years behind bars for a crime that never happened.

She and three other women were charged with gang rape of two children, and their story was featured in the documentary Southwest of Salem.

Ultimately, their conviction was dismissed due to inaccurate scientific testimony and a confession by the prosecution that her father forced her to make false charges.

Vasquez is now the director of outreach for the Innocence Project of Texas and says she hopes she can be that resource for people in her role.

“I think it gives them some comfort,” she said. “You know, when I talk to them, it’s not from a lawyer or a paralegal, you know, it’s someone who’s really been there, been through what they’re going through. … It’s just hard to hang out with someone go that has never been in jail.”

As technology has progressed, exemptions have become more common.

More than 3,000 people have been wrongly convicted and eventually acquitted since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exoneerations, amounting to some 25,000 years lost behind bars.

“I’m still a work in progress, you know?” said Vasquez. “Actually, yesterday was my brother’s death anniversary, I think. I don’t know how to say that, but it drives me crazy just thinking about it [the fact] I only had two years with him. It’s anger, frustration. It’s unbelievable that something like this could happen.”

Those 3,000 people who have now been acquitted are also reintegrating into society as they deal with unimaginable trauma and potential mental health challenges.

“Talk about your feelings or your emotions in prison wasn’t allowed, you know?” said Vasquez. “You hid under a blanket and cried. So the way I coped was, I was hopeful. But I won’t tell you I haven’t had my bad days. And you know, I was depressed, but I seem like myself always pick up.”

Pinchback says the time he spends with other people who have been wrongly convicted is his own kind of therapy.

“I have another friend about 10 minutes from here,” he said. “He’s been wrongfully convicted for 31 years and sometimes we joke and stuff like that about prison, we joke and things like, ‘Hey man, I’m going to the commissary today. Will you bring me three soups?’ … Then we’ll say, ‘Hey man, it’s a blessing that that’s behind us.'”

Both Pinchback and Vasquez regularly speak with law students and tell their stories with the aim of making that story less common.

“That’s my job,” Pinchback said. “It’s my job until I die, man, until I can’t do it anymore. It’s my job.”

Newsy’s mental health initiative “America’s Breakdown: Confronting Our Mental Health Crisis” brings you deeply personal and thoughtful told stories about the state of mental health in the US. Click here learn more.

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