Returning to Prison for the Right Reasons

Hannah Overton, a loving mother of five, languished behind bars for seven years due to a wrongful conviction based on the tragic but non-criminal death of her foster son. The televised images late last year of Hannah leaving jail with her family brought tears to my eyes. I thought to myself that if I were she, I would do little more than nest at home and pamper myself for the foreseeable future.

Just recently, I read that Hannah had returned to prison – but this time, she was there to visit and counsel. Hannah started a prison ministry while she was locked up, and she plans to continue her service to prisoners even after winning her freedom.

Hannah is by no means the first exoneree to give back after leaving prison. One who comes readily to my mind is my former client Dana Holland, who had the distinction of being wrongfully convicted of two separate crimes, for which he was sentenced to 118 years. After a decade of incarceration, Dana was exonerated and left jail on June 6, 2003. Less than six months later, I was shocked and profoundly moved when he told me he planned to return to the same jail to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the inmates. Like Hannah, Dana led a Bible study and counseled other inmates while on the inside. Like Hannah, he could not simply walk away after his release.

In a similar vein, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle – an improbable married pair of former death row inmates (she of the United States, he of Ireland) – have offered up their beautiful Irish home as a sanctuary for exonerees. Other formerly incarcerated men and women have started foundations, worked with students, volunteered with innocence organizations, and helped ex-prisoners on a one-to-one basis.

The comedian Louis C.K. talks about the importance of being useful: “if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better.” As Hannah, Dana, and many more exonerees have demonstrated, it’s a win-win situation.

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