Twenty-six years, ten months, and seven days. Seventeen years, six months, two days, and thirty-five minutes. These are time periods that Larry Smith, Jr., and Kevin Harrington spent respectively in prison for crimes they did not commit in the state of Michigan.
To anyone with a sense of decency, these would be two too many and one would hope they were anomalies rather than the norm. Sadly, this is far from true and even farther from being over.
The University of Michigan Law School's National Registry of Exonerations posts on their website that in the United States, there have been 2,839 exonerations that, combined, have cost these innocent people more than 25,265 years of their lives. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as of October 2016, there have been 1900 exonerations of the wrongfully accused, 47 percent of the exonerated were African American. African Americans are also incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
For the last couple of years African American writers, journalists, and academics have been citing the fact that the Justice System has become the “New Jim Crow”. This was even the title of a New York Times Best Selling book, written by Michelle Alexander, published in 2010. In her words, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander’s book demonstrates that, “by targeting Black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.”
In 2012, the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law published a report on the status of 891 exonerees. The research found that “Almost all irretrievably lost large portions of their lives – their youth, the childhood of their children, the last years of their parents’ lives, their careers, their marriages.” This does not even include what the report labels as “group exonerations.”
According to the report, “1,170 convicted defendants who were cleared since 1995” in 13 “group exonerations” that occurred after it was discovered that police officers had deliberately framed dozens or hundreds of innocent defendants, mostly for drug and gun crimes.” The report ultimately concluded that "there are far more false convictions than exonerations.”
In the case of Larry Smith, Jr., before he was convicted, he says, “I had people who loved me. I had a job, a car, a roof over my head, food, two grandmothers, my mother, friends and a little baby daughter.”
Then one day his mother called and said the police wanted to speak to him and told him to go to the stationhouse where he was then arrested and charged with murder. It was over 17 years before he was able to return home again. In that time, he lost both of his grandmothers, aunts, and the formative years in his daughter’s life. Upon his release, all he had to his name was the $565.00 he earned while in prison. Fortunately, he was able to move in with his mother and still had friends who could help him out.
Kevin Harrington also knows what it’s like to be isolated from friends and family. In October 2002, he was a college student, majoring in business at the Wilberforce University of Ohio. Life was good as he was the first in his family to seek higher education. Then everything fell apart. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder based on the sole testimony of a woman who said she saw him near the scene of the crime but who eventually recanted. In his first trial, Mr. Harrington was convicted. He won an appeal and his subsequent two trials ended with a hung jury, followed by the final trial where he was once again found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
“I had hope for the Justice System for the longest time but it’s just so black and white,” Mr. Harrington commented. Having been incarcerated, he said, is “like having scar tissue;” the experience is always with you; you’re never the person you were beforehand.
In the State of Michigan, it is required that the state pay the exoneree fifty-thousand dollars for every year they have spent behind bars. There have been so many prisoners exonerated in the state that they nearly ran out of funding leaving those who were set free in financial limbo through no fault of their own.
As recently as July 2021, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a statement in which she wrote, “For months now, we've known the WICA [Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act] fund was running into the red as the Legislature negotiated budget bills. While I am encouraged to see $7 million go back into the fund with this bill signing, I urge our legislators to understand the priority this fund must have for pending and future claims.”
For Mr. Harrington, it took ten months to be compensated and he appears to be one of the lucky ones. Mr. Smith was exonerated six months ago and still hasn’t received any recompense for the twenty-six years he spent behind bars.
Today, with the help of Shawanna Vaughn, the founder of Silent Cry, Inc. (a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people’s rights), Lawrence Rider-El is trying to avoid a similar fate. Mr. Rider-El is the brother of George Rider, a Michigan real estate mogul who has done federal prison time for narcotics trafficking in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then, in 2017, George Rider was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot and sentenced to life in prison.
As written by correspondent Ricardo Ferrell for the Gangster Report (a publication by and for prison lifers), according to court documents, while serving time in the Macomb County jail, George Rider conspired with a federal informant inside the jail to burn down his $1,000,000 Macomb County residence to collect a $2,000,000 insurance payout. The federal government claims that Rider’s brother, Lawrence Rider-El aided in the conspiracy by receiving a letter from his brother instructing him to paint a house which prosecutors claim was code to torch it. It is notable to point out that although the state charges were dropped back in November 2020, the government decided to re-up them.
“If they can’t nail George, they’ll just try to get his brother,” wrote Mr. Ferrell.
Shawanna Vaughn is doing what she can to make sure that never happens. Born in prison and having been incarcerated herself as a young woman, she founded Silent Cry, Inc. based on her experiences. Headquartered in New York, the organization provides resources to incarcerated people and their families, as works to address issues of poverty-related trauma.
“As we kidnap Black bodies from the streets of America into the portal of slavery by the injustice system, we must unweave the stain of slavery by amending the 13th Amendment, reversing the 1994 crime bill, and acknowledging that the prosecutorial practices of bias must be changed. There’s justice and then there’s Black injustice,” said Ms. Vaughn.
On August 20, 2021, Silent Cry, Inc. is heading up the “Innocence Rally”, in Detroit, Michigan from 10am-1pm. This is to bring attention to all those who have been unjustly persecuted and imprisoned.
By working on behalf of Mr. Rider-El and too many others like him, through Silent Cry, Inc. Ms. Vaughn hopes they will never have to experience what she calls PTPD, post-traumatic-prison-disorder. These are the traumas created by incarceration. Silent Cry, Inc. "calls for training of prison personnel in the basic core competencies of trauma informed mental health care, comprehensive policies for service provision to incarcerated individuals, investments in behavioral healthcare services (including screening, assessment, and clinical interventions for trauma) as well as facilitating connection to services post-release."
According to Ms. Vaughn, “We understand that the quality of care is the single biggest factor for impacting and invoking changes. We support affected children and families during and after a challenging period. We use our skill sets and experiences to continuously tap into what is happening in the community. We understand the challenges people face in the process of self-development and when overcoming grief."
Ms. Vaughn crafted a legislative policy called Post Traumatic Prison Disorder Shawanna W76337, which was her prison number when she was jailed. It is a comprehensive policy on mental health reconstruction for children of incarcerated parents, Inclusive to long term individuals with vendor therapies available to combat depression and suicide prevention. It also offers “a holistic approach to post incarceration individuals because healthy lifestyles and mental stability reduces repetitive behaviors which lead to reincarnation.”
In 2020 Jewell Jones, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives (and the youngest in state history being elected at age 20), helped Shawanna craft the bill and introduce PTPD legislation to the New York State Legislature. The bill requires the Department of Corrections to create individualized “transitional accountability plans that home in on the mental health needs and rehabilitation of every incarcerated person. These plans include mental health re-entry services, with screening, assessment, and the clinical intervention of Post Traumatic Prison Disorder (PTPD). Individuals diagnosed with PTPD will receive specialized health plans, therapeutic services, family counseling, job placement, housing information, and money management assistance.”
Assemblyman Jones is trying to introduce a similar bill in Michigan. He noted, “A lot of people in the Michigan Legislature and the Senate talk about improving our mental health system. They speak about how the system is so fractured, but they don’t seem really committed to resolving the issue and are not willing to try unconventional methods to do so. It’s a slap in the face to say we don’t have enough money in the budget, so again, how serious are we about repairing the criminal justice system? Clearly, there have been too many erroneous convictions for a long time now.”
Silent Cry's Innocence Rally will be held at 211 West Fort Street, Detroit, Michigan on Friday, August 20, 10AM-1PM.
Shawanna Vaughn's memoir CRIES FOR CHANGE will be available beginning Saturday, August 21, 2021. For more about Shawanna Vaughn, Silent Cry, and Post Traumatic Prison Disorder, visit silentcry.org or follow on Instagram at @silent_cry_inc.
Featured image: Kevin Harrington, Larry Smith Jr. and friends at a rally for prisoners' rights. (C) Shawanna Vaughn