Editor’s Note: The Innocent Project of New Orleans has their 21st Anniversary Gala on Saturday, November 19 from 5:30-9:00 PM. The Gala will be held at The Broadside, 600 N Broad Street, and tickets, which you can purchase here, cost $75. You can join IPNO clients and supporters for a special evening with food, open bar, music, a silent auction, and more. To let you know what you’ll be supporting by attending the Gala, we are dedicating this week to work the IPNO does in New Orleans as well as all of the work that needs to be done and makes the IPNO integral to our city.
What is Innocence Project New Orleans?
Innocence Project New Orleans’s mission statement is as follows: “IPNO frees innocent people sentenced to life in prison and those serving unjust sentences. We recognize the root causes of wrongful convictions and unjust sentences as systemic racism and inequities. We work to expose and address these root causes by sharing our clients’ stories in court, the legislature, the community and the media. We support our clients living well and fully in the world after their releases.”
IPNO is working to build an equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone with dignity and humanity. Since its inception in 2001, IPNO has helped exonerate 40 people and 10 who were unjustly sentenced. They are part of the larger national Innocence network, but IPNO fundraises alone and have different mandates than other Innocence organizations.
Even after leaving prison, life for individuals who have been exonerated is by no means easy. I was able to sit down with Cat Forrester from IPNO, and here’s what she had to say:
What happens to IPNO’s clients after incarceration? How do they re-adjust to their new lives, following the traumas they have endured while fighting for their freedom from prison?
CF: “Innocence Project New Orleans is one of the few Innocence organizations with a re-entry division. IPNO doesn’t want to leave their client –– literally and metaphorically –– at the bus stop. Their mission has instead been on how to support these clients in the real world after they come home. This has been IPNO’s focus since 2018, when it hired their first social worker and established the “Life After Life” program.
When a client comes home, IPNO provides them with a phone, as well essentials like clothing and toiletries. IPNO also sets up an Amazon wishlist for each client, so program supporters around the world can buy items that the individual is in need of, and which can accommodate skills or interests picked up during their time in prison. Each client also gets a GoFundMe started on their behalf for monetary assistance.
Clients meet with service specialists to plan for their re-entry on issues such as employment and housing. IPNO also has a new “Unjust Punishment” project, focusing on individuals who were given draconian sentences for crimes they admittedly committed, but which involved no violence, yet often resulted in long sentences. Unlike clients who were found innocent, these individuals will have this on their track record for the rest of their lives, which presents new challenges, as does the fact that this program is often in contact with these clients for a shorter period prior to release than normal. Yet in all cases, support from IPNO doesn’t stop after a few months or years. IPNO got them out of prison, so they know the organization has their back, even in the most difficult of times.”
Adjusting to life outside prison after being exonerated has been described by some clients as harder than the struggle for their freedom inside prison. How does IPNO instill hope for the future?
CF: “It can be hard. Even if fully exonerated, life can still be quite uncomfortable. If someone is applying for a job or an apartment, a background check might reveal this kind of information without context. IPNO tries to help remove these barriers, working with clients to bring things to the attention of a prospective employer or landlord before they discover the information themselves and write the individual off.
IPNO urges clients to go to therapy since incarceration itself is a traumatic experience. Part of helping them keep that hope is letting them tell their own stories. A lot of them have found healing from being interviewed about their case. It gives them the opportunity to be the narrator of their own story, since for so long the story that has been told about them is not necessarily of their own making.
IPNO also has some other incredible partners, such as Healing Justice, which started with an unusual friendship between a victim of sexual assault who picked the wrong person out of a lineup and the accused who was later exonerated. They run a program that brings together people who have been victims of violent crimes and people who have been wrongfully convicted.”
How can we, as citizens of the New Orleans area, help exonerated individuals tackle this life adjustment?
CF: “There has been some movement in ‘banning the box,’ which asks individuals if they’ve been convicted of a felony on job or housing applications. We can encourage places to hire formerly incarcerated people to break down some of the stigma. We need to keep an eye on the legislature, and when there are bills that will help wrongfully convicted people, put the pressure on. Although Louisiana offers some compensation for the exonerated, it’s a long process with no guarantee, and is one of the states with the lowest compensation amount in the country. This needs to change.”