Antione Day, 52, expected more from the place he loved and was raised.
He had already served a decade of his 60-year sentence when the prosecution dropped his murder and attempted murder charges in 2002. On his release, there was no fanfare or outrage that the justice system had failed an innocent man. He recalls standing for three hours in the rain on the grayish steps of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse and soaking in the injustices the state had committed against him.
“I never thought that the place you come from could treat you so bad,” said Day, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood. “Even when they made a mistake, even when they know and acknowledge it, they kick you out and treat you like trash.”
His experience with the criminal justice system changed the course of his life. Before his wrongful conviction, Day was traveling across the country as the drummer in a band. Even after his charges were dropped, Day found it difficult to find work. Only in 2010 did Judge Paul Biebel grant Day a certificate of innocence.
Day wants other exonerees to have a smoother reentry into society. As outreach coordinator for prison reentry at the Howard Area Community Center, Day helps those reentering society find whatever they need, including medical attention and mentorship. The one area the center does not assist with is housing. Consequently, in 2012, along with Jarrett Adams, Day co-founded Life After Justice. Day is currently working on constructing a three-story home for exonerees in the Austin neighborhood.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Day to talk about his plans for Life After Justice and the hurdles exonerees face when acclimating to society.
Talk about your work with Life After Justice and the Howard Area Community Center.
I’m Life After Justice, and my employment with Howard Area has completely unified the two, giving me the resources and access to computer skills, job employment skills, training skills that [Howard Area] shares with men and women coming home from prison. And the connection is me. I’m on both sides of it. This company really allows me to help a lot of people. … What Howard doesn’t do is housing. What [Howard] does is refer people out, but most of the people coming home with a [criminal] background can’t get in certain situations because they haven’t been exonerated. Because that’s a problem, what I’m doing is having a safe environment where [exonerees] don’t have to run over here and run over there. They can go directly to a place, and they can have safe housing, safe shelter.
What led you to start Life After Justice?
I came home from prison and was put on 26th Street and California Avenue with nothing, absolutely nothing — no money in my pocket, there was no big reception, no cameras, no fanfare. I stood in the rain on 26th and California for three hours. … When they put me out of the county jail, they just told me to go into this room. It was a pretty large room. They had a large amount of clothes just stacked up. They said, “Grab something. We don’t care what it is.” They said, “If you don’t take something out of this pile, you can’t go home because you have to take the uniform off.” So I did. … This is how they put me out of jail. … I stood [at 26th and California] until a friend of mine found me. He saw me standing there, and he asked me if I needed a ride. These are the things that we don’t want people to go through again. There’s a lot of hardship involved with coming home. It’s not easy. This is what Life After Justice is doing. We’re preparing a much easier transition — a much, much easier transition by making sure that a guy has all the essentials he needs.
What hurdles did you face when you got out of prison?
After coming home, nobody wanted to give me a job. Nobody wanted to hire me or say “OK, I’ll take a chance on you.” Actually, I got hired. A friend of mine who works downtown told me that there may be a position open in their building. My paperwork was fine. The interview was fine. She hired me on a Friday, and she fired me Monday morning. When I went in for the job, they gave me my passkey, my uniform, my locker code, my assignment. When I went in for the job on Monday, she told me she couldn’t hire me because my background just came up. I wasn’t exonerated. At the time [I] came out, they didn’t exonerate me. I had to fight for my exoneration. That’s why I came home in 2002, but I got exonerated in 2012.
When I came home, I just wanted to get my life together. When I came home, I was so messed up. I didn’t like people. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I didn’t have trauma. It’s just that after being involved in these different prisons and different personalities and being treated terribly, you begin not to trust.
How did your experience in the criminal justice change you?
I became a man in prison. I say that because I was grown, but I didn’t have the mindset that I should have had prior to going. I should have read more books. I should have had more knowledge of what was happening to me. So while in prison, I began to teach myself. I became a paralegal in prison. I learned how to shepardize cases [which is research to find similar cases] … It taught me how to relate to other people who were having a hard time as well. Most people don’t relate to you because they don’t want your problems to become their problems. But if it’s helping someone else find his or her way, then why not? That’s how I made it out of prison and tried to stay as positive as I could.
How do you envision the re-entry housing?
I have a very broad vision. I envision a nice six-unit or eight-unit building. … The first floor will be used as a general area. The men and women will be able to come here, a clean environment, where they can start getting stable. I see each apartment with separate rooms where they have their own key, their own privacy. I see a nice big garden outside of the building … that we can share with senior citizens in the community … Being stable is being able to say I got a job now, I got a safe place, I can save a little money and I can continue to make my life better.