It’s no secret that our judicial and legal systems are corrupt, riddled with error, and difficult to even understand, since most of it goes on behind closed walls. Sometimes, however, you can get a peek behind those walls, through first-hand accounts from prisoners, guards, and visitors. Here, prison guards share moments when they genuinely thought and inmate was innocent.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. If you would like to read more stories like these, be sure to check out the source link at the end of this article. Comments have been edited for clarity.
I was a Correctional Officer for five years. The closest I know of someone actually being innocent was the case of the three strikes law. Basically, upon being found guilty of a third felony, you’re hit with a MUCH stiffer penalty. He was a bouncer at a bar, and broke up a fight. He steps outside with the doorman, and there happens to be a news reporter there, reporting about the nightlife, and they ask for a interview. He said no thank you. The cameraman keeps filming, and is asked to stop. He gets all high and mighty on his freedom of the press speech and shoves the camera in the bouncer’s face, saying that he can’t do anything about him filming. Natural reaction, bouncer palms the camera lens and pushes the cameraman away. Now, he did it with some force, but by no means with any malicious intent. Viewfinder hits the cameraman above the eye, and cuts his forehead, he immediately screams causing the two police officers on the other side of the road come running over. One officer ends up recognizing the bouncer from previous charges and arrests him for malicious wounding, a felony. This is the bouncer’s third felony and therefor is immediately sent to prison upon being found guilty. He did an extra ten years for the three strikes law. If anyone else had done the same thing, I feel like the responding officers wouldn’t have arrested them.
A 19 year old kid at my facility was sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter and DUI. The kid was 17 at the time of the accident. He swerved to miss a deer, lost control, and ended up hitting a tree. He killed his girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat. The kid blows a .02 on the breathalyzer. He was not impaired what so ever, but he was under the age of 21, (legal drinking age), and was still given a DUI, which led to the manslaughter charge. I guess this is just more of an example of the messed up system in place. The girl’s family visited him every weekend until he was transferred.
I was a guard a few years ago, where I had an inmate who was in for a parole violation. Why he received his PV, was that he was on his way to it, got in a bad car wreck and broke his collarbone and two ribs. The hospital wouldn’t let him leave to go to his parole officer, the hospital tried calling to get him out this time, but his parole officer said, “Too bad. If he does not show up today, he will go back to jail.” Needless to say, three days later he walks out of the hospital, to be immediately arrested and put in jail.
There are several people I believe are innocent.
I also encountered two other inmates who were exonerated.
One guy had been found guilty of assault at a bench trial even though his DNA did not match the perpetrator’s. Let that sink in. A judge found a man guilty of assault even though it was not his DNA on the victim’s body.
Possibly the worst case I ever saw involved a man whose daughter was touched inappropriately at her day care. The perpetrator, the husband of the lady who ran the day care, had done that to several children there. After the trial, the day care owner claimed that the father of one of the victims had touched her child several years earlier. The cops asked him to come down to the station to talk about it. Having done nothing wrong, he agreed. After talking to him for hours, the police nevertheless believed they had a case against him. He was arrested, could not make bail, and sat in jail for a year. He intended to go to trial, but on the day of the trial the prosecutor offered him a deal: plead guilty, get time served, go home that day. He agreed, pled guilty, got 4 years.
Working in a prison gave me a front-row seat to the awfulness of the criminal justice system. Most people in prison really were career criminals, but the wrongful convictions were horrifying. I will never agree to talk to the police under any circumstances, and I have no faith in the benevolence of prosecutors or judges.
Actually, I think this all the time. Remand times are a big concern, sometimes people can wait in jail for a year, waiting for trial and sentencing to be finished, especially if there are witness testimonies to arrange, victim impacts, pre-sentence reports etcetera.
If you’ve already got a lengthy criminal record, to the extent you’d be denied bail, which is common, it’s in your best interest to plead guilty for minor crimes, whether you did it or not. You could sit in jail for a year, proving you didn’t make that threatening phone call, or you could just plead out and be home in 3-6 months, because if you sat there a year you’d likely be sentenced to 6 months time served.
Correctional Officer here. I work in booking, so I see them when they come in, and when they go out, I also do all of their paperwork and read the criminal complaints the officers file before arraignments.
I have seen people get pretty lenient charges, and a few get something more harsh than I would have charged them with, but I have yet to see someone come into my jail that I didn’t believe was guilty of something.
I have a couple examples: We have a 19 year old female come in a couple times a week on a T-47 hold, which is a non-criminal 12 hour sleep off. Yet, she is under the drinking age and rarely does the officer ever charge her with a minor consuming, let alone a minor consuming-habitual. I have watched her kick numerous officers as well, yet she never gets assault 3 or assault 4 on an LEO.
I also have an old man, who was 74 and no priors, come in on a assault 4 domestic violence, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. All because he got emotional and pushed his step-son at his wife’s funeral, (step-sons mother), and then made a scene and refused to leave when the cops showed up to arrest him, after the stepson called the cops on him mid-way through the service.
The step-son was a regular in our facility for theft, and apparently told the old man that he was happy she passed so that he could get her stuff. He was guilty of the Assault IV, but a little tact and compassion would have gone a long ways to avoid the other charges from taking place.
Correctional Officer here. I have never seen someone that I truly believe to be innocent, but I have seen guys come in that were what I feel to be unfairly imprisoned. We had one guy who was a normal blue collar type who missed a child support payment. Then, his lawyer didn’t tell him about an upcoming court appointment, and he was given 30 days in jail. The lawyer admitted to not telling him, but the judge wasn’t having any of it.
One guy in my institution is in his late 60’s and has a sparkling clean record, but is in on manufacturing of a substance charges. His son has had several charges in the same thing before, so we all think that he took the charge to keep his son from doing time.
As an ex-officer, it’s difficult to believe anyone in prison. The inmates that you don’t want to believe did it will usually admit it to you. The inmates that lie all the time will blame it on someone else. “Well, Bob was out with Money, and Shante didn’t like Bob. Money killed Bob, and I took the wrap for it.”
You hear stuff like that all day.
However, there was one inmate, who was in for over 20 years with a life sentence, that was released after new evidence showed he really didn’t do it. He’s now writing a book and attempting to sue the state. His name was David Boyce.
I’ve been a Correctional Officer for a while now, and while I’m sure there are a few, there is only one that strikes me as likely being innocent.
He’s an older Black guy on my rock. He’s claimed for years that he’s innocent. My partner and I read his file, (basically contains all the info from his arrest including statements and court docs, along with docs from his incarceration like security level reviews and tickets), and we both think there is at least a good chance he’s innocent.
He was arrested in the early 60s for allegedly robbing a store and killing a white woman. There were eye witnesses there stating it was a local man by the name of Perry, (changed for obvious reasons). The make and color of the car was also reported. It seems like a pretty easy case.
Said car is tracked down being driven by our inmate, let’s call him Miller. They immediately arrest Miller and charge him. Even though this is a different man than eye witnesses report, (though they aren’t really that reliable, it’s all they had).
But this is where it gets weird. Instead of charging him as miller, they call him Perry and charge him under that name. So his legal name, which even appears on the back of his DOC ID is Miller, but he’s on our count boards and computers as Perry.
Now this is a very old file, and pages may be missing, so maybe some place in there, there’s an explanation for this whole thing, but based on the file doc we have, it seems really shady and weird. Like the police figured they had a Black guy driving the right car, good enough.
He is still trying to file appeals and such, but he’s so institutionalized he wouldn’t even know what to do if he got out. He also absolutely hates when you call him Perry, always says, “That’s not my name.” He’s one of the better inmates I’ve ever had, so long as you call him Miller.
Correctional officer here. It doesn’t matter if they are guilty or not. My job isn’t to punish or pass judgement on the inmate, my job is to keep them safe and keep the public safe.
I personally have several inmates I don’t think should be in prison, but I wasn’t there when they made the mistake to get themselves locked up in the first place. Some of the nicest most pleasant inmates to deal with are lifers, (life sentence inmates), because they have came to grips with their situation and the fact that their actions put them here.
I’ll share a story about an inmate that everyone I talked to felt was wrongly incarcerated.
I worked with this one inmate an older gentleman we’ll call Mr. Grass. Allegedly, Mr Grass owned a lawnmower repair shop that was well respected in the community. One day some guys bring in some lawnmowers to sell and Mr. Grass purchased them for a fair price. What these fine young lads neglected to mention is these lawnmowers were stolen. Mr. Grass is arrested, pleads guilty, and is sentenced to quite a few years.
I’ve been a Correctional Officer for four years. I don’t think it’s been as blatant as “this guy is innocent”, but there have been a few where it was very obvious that if the person had received some help, such as for drug or alcohol abuse, he would not have wound up in jail. I think those are just as important, because as a society we need to prevent these crimes rather than just react to them.
I worked for a year at a state prison as a Corrections Officer. Honestly, if you are talking to an inmate long enough to get that much information from them about their case and life, you are probably flirting with “overfamiliarity” as they call it. It’s where you let your guard down by starting to become emotionally involved with someone or their situation and command staff at prisons keep an eye out for this all the time. I’ve seen or heard of many correctional officers losing their jobs due to bringing in contraband for prisoners or even getting romantically or physically, (in an “adult” way), involved with inmates, all because they started feeling bad for the person or became too close. The criminal justice system is not perfect by any means.
I did a tour of detainee operations in Iraq. We held local nationals for various reasons. As part of my job I had access to the records that described the nature of their ‘arrest.’ Some of them had no business being locked up, let alone locked up for 5 plus years. Some of them just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Others had crossed some of the coalition-backed local governors and had been locked up on their word alone. Take it for what it’s worth, but one guy told me he had slept with an official’s daughter and had spent 4 years there because the official made up a story about him helping Al-Qaeda. He could have been lying, but his record was pretty suspect.
There was this older fella with one arm. He was in for shooting a guy in the back. They had been stealing his social security checks and the police wouldn’t do anything. He waited for them, and blew them away, but since he shot one in the back, he was screwed. It was a bolt action rifle too, huh. I liked him and thought he should be in an old folks home playing checkers.
I’m a Correctional Officer. This story was related to me by a caseworker at the prison. He didn’t give me the inmate’s name, so I couldn’t ask him about it myself.
The dude was very young, on a road trip with the family, when they pull off the road so he can pee. He gets slapped with offence. He’s told that he will have to register as a sex-offender for the rest of his life.
In my state, as a sex-offender, you have to register your new address whenever you move.
He grows up and forgets about the whole thing. He moves out of his parents’ house. BAM! Slapped with a felony for failing to register his new address, and sent to prison.
Like I said, I couldn’t verify the story since the caseworker didn’t drop any names. As regular COs, we’re encouraged to not know inmate’s crimes so we don’t treat them differently from other each other. So that’s fine with me.
I worked as a sheriff’s deputy. I worked the jail. 1000+ inmates, many of them frequent fliers.
Anyways, one guy in a dorm asks me to check a date in the log. I ask why. He says, “Sarge, you mind checking to tell me if I was here that day?” Ok. I do, he’s logged in the dorm that day. He never left the dorm that day. Not once.
“Sarge, can my lawyer get a copy of that?”
I’m not a lawyer but sure, he should be able to subpoena that, why?
“That day I asked about?” (Over 2 years ago, btw) “I was in here for fighting” I know, you have anger issues, you fight with people.
“I’m in here now for assault. This other person says I assaulted them on that date.”
“Seriously? Dude, you’ve been here on this stint for almost a year! Why don’t you bail out?”
“Hey, it’s not a big deal to be in, and I’ll get paid when they figure out I was wrongly accused.”
To steal a Britishism, I was gobsmacked. HE chose to stay in jail, so he could get paid for it. Weird.
I worked as a deputy sheriff in the courtroom and holding cells for criminal court, so I was privy to all the evidence and motions you never see during a trial. There were two cases when I was well beyond a reasonable doubt the accused were innocent. One was a scorned ex and the other was blatant racism. Both were found not guilty.
Correctional officer here. Four years.
I’ve seen charges get dropped, I’ve seen people found not guilty, and plenty who were in that didn’t really need to be in jail..
General rule for COs: Don’t believe 95% of what you hear, and 75% of what you see. Are some probably innocent? Yeah. But that’s not for me to decide.
Correctional officer for 12 years, I have two stories. The first is not technically innocent but annoys me to no end. This guy went to a party and was 21 at the time, he met two girls who claimed to be 18 & 19 years old and ended up going to bed with both of them. It turns out they are actually 15 & 16, respectively. Both girls, parents find out and are furious, so they notify law enforcement and file charges against him. During the court proceedings the girls admit they lied to this guy about their age, and they were the ones who initiated the whole encounter. He’s found guilty and is now a registered offender.
This one, I believe the guy is innocent. He was a financial adviser for a big name company so he had himself together. He was giving a friend a ride and it turns out his friend was selling drugs. The driver had no idea his friend was selling drugs. Long story short, the guy gets pulled over for a traffic violation and the drugs are found on his friend in multiple baggies ready for distribution. He gets hit with a felony for transporting the dealer. Before you call bullcrap on these stories and say these guys are lying, I am able to look up all the information on these guys all the way back to the initial police report.
Not exactly innocent, but harshly punished. In Illinois we have inmates that are still serving sentences for crimes that they committed, but are now not classified the same. For example, old drug convictions and manslaughter situations. I know an inmate sentenced to 100 years (serving 50% or 50 years) for selling cocaine. This is a harsh sentence for a nonviolent drug charge, but the war on drugs was a big ordeal back when he was convicted.
I worked in a county jail for a few years at the start of my career in law enforcement. There was 19-year-old kid in there that was one of the nicest most respectful people you’d ever meet. Basically he had to serve an entire year with us because his ex-girlfriend and her family lied about something involving abuse, and he ended up in jail and on the s. offender list. He wasted an entire year of his youth in jail. Shortly after he got out he went through an appeal process and took a polygraph and was found innocent. He had still wasted a year of his life in jail for something he didn’t do.
I saw him a few months after and he was doing much better and said he got a good job.
MI2112A guy who was sentenced to 10 years for possession of medical marijuana from another state while vacationing at a lake in AZ. He got arrested for possession with intent to distribute, since they were rolled into individual joints inside his prescription bottle.
Another was a marine who killed a guy who was beating up someone else at a bar. They said his training meant that any use of force on his part was excessive, and was convicted of second degree murder.
The worst was probably the 18-year-old kid who was convicted of 2nd degree murder, with the weapon used listed as “car”. He was passenger of a car who hit and ran someone, the cops caught up with them and he was sentenced because they ruled that he should have done something about it as they drove away.
Also, had a friend who was Mormon, and when he turned 18 he was having a moral conflict because his girlfriend was still only 17, despite the fact they had been dating for three years. He talked to his Mormon Bishop about it and the bishop called the cops. He ended up doing 4 years prison and lifetime parole/registered for life.