Starting Over

Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Life After Innocence, the only program of its kind, opened its doors in 2009 for exonerated prisoners struggling to get back on their feet

Published in 2013 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2013

Antoine Day spent 10 years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. But when he got out of prison, things didn’t get much easier. That’s when Life After Innocence stepped in.

Many organizations are dedicated to seeing that the wrongfully convicted are released from prison. However, after people like Day are exonerated, many have nowhere and no one to turn to. “There’s just no warning and you’re just starting completely over,” says Loyola law instructor Laura Caldwell. “So, in a way, it’s the predicament of many ex-offenders, but actually, it’s even worse because … they just come out with absolutely nothing.”

Caldwell witnessed these struggles firsthand while working with a client. Around the same time, several Loyola law school students approached her with the idea of starting an innocence project. Caldwell suggested they instead establish a program to help the exonerated once they’re free. In 2009, that idea turned into Life After Innocence.

A few years later, the program is a growing success. Caldwell says that at any given time, roughly a dozen students are working with five to 15 former inmates. Members of the program ensure that each prisoner’s record is expunged—a pivotal step to starting over that’s not automatic—advocate for beneficial legislation, such as a recently passed bill that provides mental health benefits, and help in the search for work or further education.

Day was released from prison in 2002 and was introduced to Life After Innocence by a fellow inmate once the program was established. He says that without Caldwell and her students, he would probably still be struggling today. Instead, he works with support groups to help parolees and others like him. He visits the prison as a motivational speaker and helps former inmates register to vote, become active in the community and, in general, re-enter society on a positive note.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise to go through what I went through, because the people I’ve met since I’ve been home have been tremendous. It’s been beautiful,” says Day. “This is what I [tell the] other guys: Don’t waste your time on looking for revenge or hating or being mean to somebody. Use your time on living your life to the fullest and raising your expectations. It was hard at one time, when I was just abandoned [in] the prison system, but when I began to work and learn how to help other people, it helps me. I just pay it forward.”

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