After spending many years behind bars before being exonerated, a group of criminal justice reformers are working to teach New Orleans youth the value of their freedom and their own power to make the right choices.
Shareef Cousins was 16 when he was sentenced to death on murder charges in New Orleans. Eleven years later, at age 27, he was exonerated and returned home. He got a job and he would eventually enroll in college. But even as a free man, Cousins still carried a heavy burden from his years behind bars.
“You know we’re talking about a kid. I was depressed. I didn’t deal with that, I didn’t deal with just the reality that half of my youth has been just taken away from me,” he says. “A lot of times when we’re released from prison we think, ‘Oh, I’m released, I’m free, I’m good.’ But you’re not good.”
That’s why he joined a New Orleans nonprofit called Resurrection After Exoneration. This group advocates for criminal justice reform in the halls of power, while on the street level it helps men and women coming home from prison. Resurrection After Exoneration was founded by John Thompson, another New Orleans man who served 18 years in a Louisiana prison before his own exoneration. He now runs a screenprinting company in New Orleans called Beacon Industries.
“Some of us had smooth transitions back into society, I was one of them. We couldn’t say the same for our other brothers,” he says.
Thompson knows that without support, the future for people coming home after long periods of incarceration is grim.
“It’s that self destruction. No one to talk to, no doctors, no psychiatrists, no one to really fan it out on. You have family members not understanding how to help you,” he says.
This is where Resurrection After Exoneration steps in, helping them with the very basics at first, like clothes and housing, and then working on counseling, GED classes and job skills to get them on the right track. And the program is expanding, as Cousins explains.
“We know that our program works for exonerees, so now we’re saying, you know what, we need to expand it to formerly incarcerated, period,” he says. “Empower ourselves to become advocates, to become better citizens, to integrate back into our communities, knowing who you are and accepting who you are and developing who you are and being able to give who you are in a community.”
Resurrection After Exoneration is lobbying lawmakers to provide more compensation and support for those who were wrongly incarcerated. And the group is also using the perspective of its members, as people who survived some of the darkest rungs of the criminal justice system, to reach out to local high school students through a program called My Choice My Voice.
“So My Choice My Voice says, you know what, not only us as exonerees, but we as formerly incarcerated black men have a responsibility to reconstruct what’s happening in our own communities,” says Cousins.
Or, as Thompson puts it:
“We’re trying to let them know how precious life is, how we lost our freedom. Nothing is worth hurting your brother, we are trying to really get that message across.”