Imagine finding yourself in prison for a crime you didn't commit.
It’s no secret that prisons and the justice system in the United States have long been in need of reform— the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Fortunately, DNA testing is redefining the criminal justice system. Since 1989, over 2,500 people have been exonerated in the United States. A recent event hosted by the SCU Library and the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), “Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction”, brought together some of the stories and voices behind this process.
The event featured a panel of speakers, including Nikki Pope J.D. ‘04, co-author of the book Pruno, Ramen, and a Side of Hope, which inspired the event. ("Pruno" is a nickname for homemade alcohol in prison.)
The book is a collection of essays written by exonerees and their loved ones. In their own voices, exonerees describe how they found hope, both in enduring their imprisonments and reclaiming their lives afterwards, through avenues like cooking, poetry, and love. The book is filled with stories, poems, and recipes they created, showing the irresistible yearning of humans to be forces of creation and beauty even in the bleakest of circumstances. After being released, many of the exonerees continue to fulfill this desire by enrolling in school and advocating for justice, showing the deeply redemptive and resilient nature of our species.
Of course, these exonerations couldn’t have happened without help. Paige Kaneb, panelist and supervising attorney for NCIP, provided an introductory chapter for the book. At our event she described her work at NCIP, which is based at the SCU School of Law, and recalled how the moment in which an exonerated prisoner is released is one of “pure joy.”
Kaneb is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do this work, and always learns from her clients because “they’re thoughtful and patient and so appreciative of life and freedom when they get to experience it,” despite having every right to feel bitter about what happened to them instead.
Many of the exonerees display a similar sentiment throughout Pruno. They find that, rather than being angry at what happened to them, they can use their experiences in prison as a time of reflection, and become more mindful about how they live.
Maurice Caldwell, a panelist at the event and author of a story in Pruno, told of how he directed his anger at the prison system into hard work, sending letters to everyone he could contact, using “writing as a means to escape all the madness.”
He was always grateful for his ability to communicate, unlike many of the other prisoners, who couldn’t read or write. Through his hard work he gained respect from the other inmates. At the event, Caldwell talked about how excited and appreciative he is of everyday things that he hadn’t noticed before, like getting to eat candy or peel an orange. He said that food always gave them hope in prison, and that everyone has “hope for something.” Now, his hope continues to drive his activism.
Two other panelists at the event were Rick Walker, exoneree and NCIP board member, and Ronnie Sandoval-Carmona, the mother of exoneree Arthur Carmona, who features in Pruno. Sandoval-Carmona, who has since lost her son to a drunk driver, encouraged people to pressure the government by writing letters to them about these issues.
The panelists described how readjustment to real life after prison is difficult: they have to show people that they’ve changed, and at the same time adjust to years of new technologies and reestablish a social history for themselves.
Events like these allow exonerees to get their voices heard by the world, and indeed, this was the goal which drove Pope to write Pruno in the first place. As one exoneree states in the book: “for twenty years I had to keep my mouth shut. I have something to say and now I’m gonna say it.” Its stories stand testament to the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the face of seeming helplessness.
This is also the takeaway that Pope wants readers to get from her book: that voices matter. We live in a democracy; we can demand changes and vote for new policies, judges, prosecutors, and politicians. In showcasing diverse voices through this event, the library empowers them, and us, as a society. These voices, and our voices, matter.