Spending 17 1/2 years in state prison for a murder he did not commit will haunt Obie Anthony for the rest of his life.
It’s 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. It’s a result 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.”
Helping others heal
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 cleared of crimes and released from prisons in California and nationwide.
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 our communities by addressing intergenerational trauma, said Yvette Radford, vice president of External and Community Affairs for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.
“This program demonstrates our commitment to addressing racial justice and equity,” said Radford. “Through this grant, we’re helping exonerees 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. One of these laws bears his name: Obie’s Law, AB 672.
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.”
Since 1989, there have been 3,231 exonerations across the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In 2021, for example, the registry recorded 121 exonerations with official misconduct by prosecutors cited in 102 of those.
Gayle Cummings, who is Exonerated Nation’s board president and an assistant dean and program director at Touro University California, believes the real number of wrongful convictions is much higher.
“The national registry figures don’t show the whole story of those wrongfully convicted,” said Cummings. “Many leave prison before they are exonerated.”
In California alone, Anthony helps between 11 and 15 people each year who are freed after wrongful convictions and prison terms.
Understanding the ongoing struggle
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 shoulder 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 a place for people with similar experiences 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.”