There is widespread incarceration of American citizens due to lack of financial resources, said the director of the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program.
People will often confess to crimes because they do not have the financial resources to pay for bail, or will deny the charges but be refused parole, said Lisa Kavanaugh, who earned her doctorate of law at Harvard Law school. Although it is not the main cause for incarceration, police interrogations play a role in these cases.
“The way police are trained to interrogate suspects is premised on the idea that when they go into that interrogation room they already know that the person is guilty,“ said Kavanaugh. “So, it’s okay to use all sorts of coercive pressure tactics because in their minds the person is already guilty so it’s fair.”
Studying wrongful conviction cases has led to reform on laws such as requiring officers to record interrogations and the handling of eye witness accounts, according to Kavanaugh.
“Overall it does seem like we’ve completely lost sight of humanity of people that we put behind bars and there is this general attitude that if you’ve committed a crime that you are just not only not a good person but not even really a person and not deserving of basic human dignities that we assume everyone else in the world is entitled to,” she said.
Victor Rosario was wrongfully convicted of an arson crime and charged with eight counts of second degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, and when he was found innocent with the help of Kavanaugh, he was still held for 3 more years while the case was cleared.
For any inmate leaving prison, they experience “immediate barriers” such as finding housing and health insurance.
“Inside the prison system they prepare you by papers but not by experience and it’s two different things,“ said Rosario. “Even when you come out of the prison system you don’t have a birth certificate, you don’t have identification. It’s even a struggle to get a license.”
Rosario experienced problems with water quality as well as issues with healthcare while in prison. For any pain, the only medicine provided was Tylenol or Motrin, and “believe me, if you have a problem with your teeth, you come in with teeth and leave with no teeth,” said Rosario.
While being in jail for 32 years, Rosario lost time with his daughter, mother and other family members, but in visitation hours was able to feel a part of their world. “And for that moment being an hour or 45 minutes or whatever, the person starts feeling like he’s a human being because he’s in contact with society, with family, with friends,” he said.
“The moment that person goes back into the same environment that person realizes I’m here, this reality kicks in, I’m in prison,” Rosario added. “But just that moment of being in a visiting room is an amazing touch to change and transform the person. They basically feel as a human being.”
Kavanaugh also serves on the board of directors for the New England Innocence Project, which recently partnered with Boston University on a play called “The Exonerated,” which shares the testimonies of six wrongfully convicted exonerees.
“It was important understanding the work itself, not being bogged down by trying to please the audience or trying to entertain but first telling the story because it’s so current and it’s happening right now,” said actor Nicholas Walker.
Kavanaugh stays in contact with exonerees through the charity running team Running for Innocence, as well as by going to different places in the community, such as high schools, to share the story of wrongful convictions.
“I think young people haven’t lost their capacity for outrage, and this is something to be outraged about,” she said.