Steffanie Rivers

*Alan Newton is a millionaire eighteen times over. He doesn’t run a corporation. He didn’t invent anything. He didn’t inherit the money either.

All the 49-year-old had to do was spend twenty-two years of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Newton is just one of the dozens of men across the United States whose prison sentence has been overturned due to DNA evidence that proved him innocent.

That’s the good news. The bad news is by the time their convictions were overturned and they were set free most had spent decades behind bars for something they didn’t do.

In Texas the Tim Cole Act of 2009 was passed by a statewide panel that agreed to pay those wrongfully convicted $80,000 for each year he had been imprisoned, plus an annuity of close to $80,000 for the rest of his life. Because time lost never can be found, an apology and what turns out to be a million dollar payoff is the least the state can do.

Some people might consider trading their freedom for the money, but also consider this: According to the Center for Disease Control, HIV transmission is five times higher in prison than in the general population; and forty percent of the two million people in prison are infected with Hepetitis C. It’s a treatable disease, but experts say due to budget constraints prisons don’t test for it so most prisoners don’t know they have it and as a result they die from it.

Add those statistics to the other challenges –real or imagined – of prison life. Even if you make it out of prison alive with a sound mind and body, technology has advanced the world at such a fast pace the liklihood that you will catch up and be able to adjust is slim to none. I’m still trying to figure out all there is to know about my iPhone that I’ve had more than a year, and I haven’t been to prison.

Add to that the fact that once released ex-cons don’t get the most positive response from potential employers – guilty or not – because everybody claims to be innocent. But thanks to the Innocense Project, an organization designed to help get questionable evidence re-examined, more than 140 people in 34 states were found to be wrongfully convicted since 2000. These injustices occurred due to witness misidentification, invalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions, false information from snitches, crooked law enforcement or bad legal advice. And if that’s not bad enough, legal red tape and the good ole’ boy network keep some men waiting years longer than they should once they petition the court for evidence re-examiniation.

In Dallas County, Texas it took the election of the county’s first black district attorney, Craig Watkins, for a “conviction integrity unit” to be created. And that has led to more than eight DNA exonorees in Dallas alone since 2007. When criminals are released on parole they get some assistance with assimilation and are assigned to a parole officer. But there have been no programs for men like Alan Newton who probably lost contact with family and friends during their incarceration. When an innocent man is set free oftentimes the support system he had during his initial conviction likely isn’t there at his release. That’s why in Dallas his predecessors attend every exoneration hearing to show their support, and the day of his release he is presented with a care pacakage that includes a thousand dollars to get him on his feet because the million dollar payoff takes time.

Only a man who has been dealt the same fate understands the before and after of being wrongly convicted. And eventhough most people haven’t amassed a million dollars net worth, you would be hard pressed to find someone willing to giveup his freedom for more than a decade in exchange for millionare status. Just ask the men who were forced into the scenario. If they had to do it again something tells me they would take their chances in the free world.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at youtube.com/steffanierivers.