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Healing the trauma of wrongful conviction and imprisonment

With the help of Kaiser Permanente, Exonerated Nation provides mental health services, economic aid, and a voice to innocent people who go to prison. Pictured, at left, Obie Anthony, founder of Exonerated Nation, and Gayle Cummings, Exonerated Nation board president.

Spending 17 and a half years in state prison for a murder he did not commit will haunt Obie Anthony for the rest of his life.

It has been over a decade since he was freed into an unfamiliar world an innocent man, but tears still roll down his face when he talks about his experience, the effect of what he calls his “prison traumatic stress syndrome.”

“I try my hardest to just talk clearly so individuals can appreciate the fact that I was not just wrongfully convicted,” said Anthony as he recounted the horror of receiving a life sentence. “I was framed for something I didn’t do. When I got out of prison there was no help, no services, no nothing.”

Anthony started the nonprofit Exonerated Nation in 2016 to help others like him obtain housing, get mental and physical health support, and find employment when they are exonerated of crimes and released from prisons in California and nationwide.

“We are letting the people in the criminal justice system know that we are not disposable people.” – Obie Anthony

An $80,000 Kaiser Permanente grant funds a yearly retreat for 40 exonerees and 40 family members to tell their stories, learn leadership skills, and heal through the therapeutic power of shared experience. The grant is part of Kaiser Permanente’s effort to better the health of Northern California communities by addressing intergenerational healing from trauma, said Yvette Radford, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vice president of External and Community Affairs.

“This program demonstrates Kaiser Permanente’s commitment to addressing racial justice and equity,” said Radford. “Through this grant, we’re helping exonerees to heal from trauma while also learning powerful skills to transform the unjust and discriminatory systems that contribute to false imprisonment.”

Since 2015, Anthony has helped pass 5 California laws that give exonerees free basic services, including one bearing his name, Obie’s Law, AB672.

Services included in the laws and provided by the state of California are game changers for innocent people coming out of prison with nothing in their pockets: $6,200 in cash, 4 years of paid housing costs, free job training, mental health services, enrollment in food programs, and free tuition in state colleges and universities.

One of the laws Anthony helped pass makes it a felony for any prosecutor to intentionally withhold evidence that would prove a person’s innocence.

“Exonerated Nation is doing the work the state should have been doing,” he said. “We try to make the transition easier for people.”

Nationwide need

Since 1989, there have been 3,231 exonerations nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In 2021, for example, the registry recorded 121 exonerations with official misconduct cited in 102 of those.

In California alone, Anthony helps between 11 and 15 people each year who are freed after wrongful convictions and prison terms.

Gayle Cummings, who is Exonerated Nation’s board president and an assistant dean and program director at Touro University California, said the national registry figures don’t show the whole story of those wrongfully convicted because many leave prison before they are exonerated.

“We believe the real number is between 5,000 and 10,000 a year,” said Cummings, referring to a 2012 study.

Anthony said he continues to process the damage done to his mental health, and many days are a struggle. There is fear, paranoia, and anxiety from all the years he had to look over his back just to drink from a water fountain for fear of being attacked. He still worries he may be sent back to prison.

Exonerated Nation not only provides services but is there for people as a place to lean on one another, because no one else can truly understand what they have gone through, Anthony said.

“We are letting the people in the criminal justice system know that we are not disposable people.”

 

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I’m very pleased that an institution like Kaiser Permanente is starting to play their part in addressing racial justice and equity. I hope [to see] more programs in which they are involved.

  2. I am glad to see Kaiser supporting the mission of Exonerated Nation. While there is much more work to be done, funding programs and spaces for people who have experienced wrongful conviction to come together, support one another, and advocate for change is critical. Thank you, Obie, for sharing your story and working tirelessly on behalf of people who have experienced wrongful conviction.

  3. So proud of Kaiser for supporting this program, Mr. Obie is an amazing human being, to have helped pass the bill he is at least making the journey back to society, less painful for the people who have been wronged. I have been inspired to work for this organization when I retire next year.

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