No Man's Land: When Innocent Prisoners Are Released

Nov 8, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 11:13 pm

Unlike prisoners who've served their sentences, prisoners who've been exonerated and released are not eligible for any re-entry programs from the state, and this is common across the country.

A version of this story originally aired on New England Public Radio.

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Mark Schand served 27 years behind bars in Massachusetts for a crime he says he did not commit. Since the state dismissed all charges two years ago, Schand has been struggling to start over with very little help from the system that locked him up. From New England Public Radio, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: Mark Schand bounds down the stairs of his Windsor, Conn. home, just back from his night shift at UPS, wearing a crisp, black T-shirt with white writing.

Oh, I can't believe you're wearing that T-shirt (laughter).

MARK SCHAND: That's right. Oh, yeah, we wore that just for you.

BROWN: The shirt says, I didn't do it, Schand's motto since the age of 21, when he was arrested and convicted of murder. A drug deal in Springfield, Mass. had gone bad. And a bystander was shot and killed. Witnesses pegged Schand as the shooter, but he's always claimed he was at his wife's beauty parlor in Hartford, Conn. at the time. John Thompson, Schand's lawyer since 1987, says police and prosecutors were under great pressure to get a conviction.

JOHN THOMPSON: They encouraged people to tell them what they wanted to hear. They offered witnesses rewards for testimony that wasn't trustworthy.

BROWN: It took Schand's lawyers and pro bono investigators almost three decades to convince the court he did not get a fair trial. A judge sent him home two years ago. And on that fall day, Schand says years of bitterness evaporated.

SCHAND: Believe me, the day they released me, I couldn't find it. Yeah, the anger, it wasn't there. I was just happy I was out. And I figured I'd just focus on that day forth.

BROWN: That has turned out a lot harder than he thought. In Massachusetts, prisoners who've served their sentences get help transitioning back to society - job training, housing assistance, even help opening a bank account - but not if you're released through a judge's order.

REBECCA BROWN: They're in a bit of a no man's land.

BROWN: Rebecca Brown is policy director for The Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions. Across the country, she says, the newly exonerated are dropped from a state's correction system as soon as charges are dismissed.

R. BROWN: They need reentry services, as does anyone who is leaving prison after an extended period of time. The problem for the wrongfully convicted is that because they're neither parolees nor probationers, they are not entitled to those services which exist for those people.

BROWN: One option is asking the government for money to get back on your feet. Massachusetts is one of 30 states that allow the wrongly imprisoned to file a claim for compensation. Shortly after his release, Mark Schand asked for the maximum half a million dollars that Massachusetts allows. And he may have to go to court to get it. That's left Schand, now 50, on his own to find work.

SCHAND: Yeah, I probably had a little fantasy - everybody like, oh, gosh, you was wrongfully convicted. And there'd be like 20 jobs waiting for me. Nobody cared.

BROWN: He applied for dozens of jobs online. No one called. He says his first break came when he applied in person for a job at a group home for troubled kids. A manager asked why he left the previous employment section blank.

SCHAND: I said it was 'cause I was incarcerated. She said, well, sir, if you was incarcerated, you can't work here. So I told her. I said, listen, Google my name. And you'll see the story. Apparently, she did because this was the lady that gave me my first job.

BROWN: Schand now works a graveyard shift lifting heavy boxes at UPS. He thinks the government should be doing much more for him.

SCHAND: I don't deserve to be where I am right now financially. I don't deserve to be away from my family as long as I was away from my family. They can't make that whole again no matter what, you know? But I think they deserve to try.

BROWN: On top of his compensation claim, Schand has filed a civil rights lawsuit. The Innocence Project says most exonerated prisoners try this route. In some cases, they win millions of dollars. But the burden of proof is heavy, and fewer than half see a penny. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.