For wrongly convicted black men, exoneration can be just as traumatizing as prison

If 56-year-old Herman Atkins went pretty much anywhere, he had a routine: stop at a supermarket as he left the house, check the security camera, make a small purchase like chewing gum or soda, and always back up a receipt . Back home in Southern California, he filed the receipts in a binder and placed it in a filing cabinet.

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

Not unknown to those wrongfully imprisoned, Atkins’ actions illustrate the often overlooked devastation exonerated people suffer as they attempt to re-enter society. Stories of exoneration often draw media attention and evoke public glee, but they don’t include the aftermath, life after the cameras have gone. Those exonerated, psychologists treating them and lawyers representing them say their reemergence in the post-prison world may pose lifelong challenges in terms of self-esteem, employment, depression and other issues affecting them and affect their families.

“It’s PTSD that we all suffer from in this kind of fraternity,” said Atkins, who was cleared of a rape in 2000 by DNA evidence, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Being in prison when you know you shouldn’t be there is hard to describe. It’s overwhelming. And then all those years go by – years of being scared to death almost every second, conditioned in a way that inspires paranoia and anger.

“And then suddenly you’re finally free.”

Herman Atkins
Herman Atkins, on July 27, 2006 at his home in Fresno, California. Atkins spent more than eight years in prison pending DNA evidence proving his innocence. Gary Kazanjian / AP File

“And you’re dropped into society so damaged you don’t know how to fit in,” he added. “That’s the part of these reliefs that people don’t see. They think you’re fine because you’re finally free, and from the outside you look fine. But you are not. Inside you spin. You are lost and struggling with so much. It is difficult.”

Blacks are seven times more likely to be unjustly convicted of murder than whites National Relief Register.

The registry – operated 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 found that although only 13% of the population is black, 47% of the known exonerations are from blacks.

“The reality for African Americans in this country is that you are guilty. Period,” said Joanne Frederick, a veteran psychologist who specializes in, among other things, treating patients with anxiety and depression in the Washington, DC area. She has also treated exonerated black men.

“With these exonerated people, I see increased anxiety and depression after they were first accused of something they didn’t do and convicted in court, which is trauma,” Frederick said. “Then they go through the prison system, which is another level of trauma. And then they’re proven innocent, exonerated, and there’s more trauma because they’re suddenly lost and trying to find where to fit in the world. Paranoid. Scared. Depressed. Furious. It’s a lot that the average person doesn’t take into account. They think, “Well, they’re out, free. Everything is great.’ It’s the complete opposite.”

Atkins, who is studying law and plans to work on exoneration cases, is speaking publicly nationally about the impact of wrongful incarceration. He said the feelings that come with being fired can be all-encompassing.

“You feel like nobody wants to have your back because of what you saw in prison,” he said. “You don’t want to be in crowded places because bad things happen in prison in crowded places. There’s a feeling of being inadequate because you’re so behind with the technology and the way the world works. There is 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 to that. In April, he was released in Miami after 32 years in prison for a murder he was shown not to have committed. He has since presented a public veneer depicting a smiling, carefree man embracing being able to roam wherever he pleases for the first time in three decades.

Pictured: 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 doesn’t speak openly about the adjustments he’s trying to make because “people are going to think I’m crazy,” he said.

James shared that he was so used to sleeping on a narrow, thin mattress in prison that he placed items on more than half of the king-size bed at his mother’s house to simulate the cramped quarters he was in had been forced to endure in prison.

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

Image: Diplomas and photos of family members visiting Thomas Raynard James in prison.
Diplomas and photos of family members who visited Thomas Raynard James 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 those wrongly convicted has contributed to and contributes to them being “retraumatized” as free people many of their mistakes in expanding as humans.

“I call it CTSD – prolonged traumatic stress disorder,” Butler said. “What usually happens is that they are left alone with re-entering society and dealing with the stigma that comes with it. And part of that stigma is people who believe they are not innocent of the crime, despite proven innocence. That’s hard to deal with, especially to the other elements that come with not having support.”

In 2002, Brian Banks, a star football player in California high school, was convicted of raping a classmate. She later admitted she made up her accusation – after Banks served five years and two months in prison and wore an ankle monitor for another five years. The charges and his status as a registered sex offender were dropped in 2012 after the accuser admitted she lied about him sexually assaulting her.

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

“Even after 10 years at liberty, I’m still working on it every day,” said Banks, who serves on the Advisory Board of the National Registry of Exonerations. “Readjustment to society is an everyday process. We’re talking about someone who repeatedly experienced the worst day of their life while in prison for something they didn’t do. It does something with the psyche, with your spirituality. It has to do with how you see the world, how you trust people, or how you see people’s motives.”

James said his relief at being exonerated was eroded 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 to focus on the unlikely chance of release. He read magazines about technology. But when he tried to buy a bottle of water at a Miami Heat NBA game, he was told the arena was cash-free. “I had never heard of that,” he said. “So, money isn’t good? It shocked me.”

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

James, who said he lives off the earnings from his Book and a GoFundMe campaign said he saw two therapists weekly, one from the Miami organization Circle of Brotherhood, a collection of black men working to support their communities.

“I seem like a functioning person and everything seems fine,” James said. “But I haven’t gotten comfortable enough yet to really open up so they can get inside my head and really see what’s going on so I can deal with it.”

This feeling of trauma and disruption is also transferred to the relieved families.

“Going to jail for something you haven’t done in a long time is like dying and going to the grave,” Banks said. “Your family is mourning and they are crying for you and they are praying for you and they miss you and they love you.”

But eventually even family members can come out of the grief.

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

James felt it too. He lives with his 81-year-old mother and is desperate for financial stability. Having already been charged with gun possession, he is not eligible to seek a refund in Florida, which has a “clean hands rule” that prohibits a criminal from suing.

Natlie Figgers, the Coral Springs, Fla., attorney who led the prosecution for James’ release, said it was agonizing to see her client struggle with social rehabilitation and financial struggles. “It’s hard to see his disappointment with that,” she said.

“You can take my life, send me to those horrible prisons for 32 years, admit you made a mistake and set me free – but I can’t be compensated for everything I’ve 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 speak of relieved people, we are dealing with a society with closed hearts. This is wrong and only makes it harder for us.”

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Fry Electronics Team

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