New State Laws Provide Mental Health Care for Exonerees
June 1, 2009
People who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in Texas now have access to mental health care and other services, due in large part to the work of Dr. Jaimie Page and the heart-wrenching stories of exonerees.
Page, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington, studies the mental health needs of exonerees and identifies supports and services they need after leaving prison.
A Hogg Foundation grant of $80,990 has enabled Page to gather data through interviews with exonerees and their families, host conferences on exoneree issues, visit Innocence Projects in New York and California, and meet with Dallas-area exonerees twice a month. Page and her students also provide case management services, therapeutic support, and community organizing for exonerees.
Page said exonerees often experience stress, shame, anxiety, anger, helplessness, isolation, violence and trauma while incarcerated. Yet because they are exonerated, they don't qualify for services provided to parolees. So they leave prison with nothing—no counseling, medical services, money, identification, food, housing or job placement assistance.
Her research also confirms most wrongful convictions are due to false identifications, higher arrest rates for men of color, errors by overzealous law enforcement officers, faulty interrogations and forensic mistakes.
"Hearing these men's stories was a life-changing experience," said Page. "You might think once they're released, they are happy and things are fine. But they experience new levels of trauma and mental health needs."
Charles Chatman, exonerated and released at 47, told a legislative committee earlier this year he was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years when he was 20.
"I was denied the opportunity to learn basic skills for living. I don't know how to manage money, I don't have an education, I don't have a work history or references. I didn't even know how to operate a cell phone when I got out," he said. "We need a reintegration program, similar to the services parolees get. Simple things like IDs, a place to stay, a job, food, health services. Exonerees don't have that."
After hearing testimony from exonerees, district attorneys, defense lawyers and other stakeholders, the 81st Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1736 and Senate Bill 1847 to provide exonerees with more compensation and social services, including mental health care.
"These new laws will help Texas exonerees recover from the horrific trauma of wrongful conviction and imprisonment and ease their transition back into the community," said Dr. Octavio N. Martinez, Jr., executive director of the foundation. "Dr. Page's work shows that good policy can be achieved through solid research and strategic advocacy."