Joseph lay on the hospital bed, struggling to stay alive. Blood clots that started in his leg had travelled to his heart and lung, blocking the flow of blood and oxygen through his body. Now, he was walking the line between life and death. It was five days before his scheduled release from prison, after twenty-three years of incarceration for a crime that he did not commit.
Joseph’s story begins at the age of six, when his parents divorced, leaving his mother to raise six children on her own. The two eldest were at school most of the time, and their mother worked long hours to support her family, which left Joe to take care of his three younger siblings. He cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, and kept everything in order. As he grew older, the weight of those responsibilities and the pressure of becoming an adult at a very young age festered in him, developing into frustration and animosity toward family and friends. Joseph first entered the correctional system at the age of eleven, when he was deemed “uncontrollable” by authorities.
As Joseph grew into a teen and then a young adult, he continued to get into trouble and experience contact with the criminal justice system. Then, when he was thirty-two years old, a terrible crime happened near to where he worked. The perpetrator of the crime, an unidentified male, seemed to vaguely fit Joseph’s description, and he was arrested.
Joseph knew that he was innocent, and hoped that once the court examined the evidence closely, that he would be exonerated. However, at that time, DNA science was still a very new phenomenon; the court had to fly in a specialist from Texas, who had just a few hours to testify before his plane flight back home. The DNA specialist asserted that, based on the DNA evidence, there was absolutely no way that Joseph could have committed the crime. Then the prosecution’s lawyer took the stand, and played down the reliability of the DNA evidence, casting it as a “junk science.” The jury convicted Joseph, and he was sentenced to 102 years.
“Sunset on Mendota,” by Joseph
Although Joseph now faced the prospect of living out the rest of his life in prison, he also knew that he was innocent, and that the evidence to prove his innocence was still out there. After the DNA specialist had finished testifying, he had handed the envelope of physical evidence of the Clerk of Courts, who had filed it away in her office. Somewhere out there, hope still existed.
When Joseph entered prison, he was besieged by self doubt and anger, and felt crushed under the weight of the rest of his life behind bars. He was totally alone; even his family didn’t fully believe in his innocence. However, he refused to let the anger rule him, and “finally came to the conclusion that my life mattered.” He took advantage of what few resources were available to him at the prison’s library, and began to educate himself on the law. He would spend the day working in the prison’s kitchens, then worked late into the night studying books of law and writing letters. After nineteen years, Joseph had acquired enough legal savvy to petition the federal government to re-examine the DNA evidence from his case.
The government rejected Joseph’s petition. Undeterred, he took his case to the courts, who also rejected him. Joseph wrote the University of Wisconsin, telling them about his life and requesting any legal help they could provide. They assigned him two student attorneys, who assisted Joe in requesting that his evidence be re-examined. They were told that the evidence had been destroyed. However, Joseph knew this to be untrue; he remembered the little envelope that the Clerk of Courts had filed away in her office, where he knew it was still gathering dust after twenty years.
The student attorneys were ready to close Joseph’s case, but he was not. He wrote again to the University of Wisconsin, who relayed his message to the professor of law. She took over the case herself, and fought hard for Joseph’s exoneration. The DNA evidence was finally located and re-tested, proving Joseph’s innocence. It took nearly four more years, but finally a date for his release was set.
“Connamera,” by Joseph
Joseph was transferred from prison to jail, where his life seemed to be on hold, waiting for his freedom. As Joseph was “laying around like a lump on log” inside jail, getting no exercise, his health deteriorated significantly. Just days before his scheduled release, the blood clots that had been forming in his leg hit his lung and heart, sending him to what he thought would be his death bed.
Joseph struggled to keep himself alive. He was so close to freedom. After ten days of fighting for his life, Joseph managed to pull himself back from the brink. On the day of his release, Joseph had almost nothing to his name, but he was free. As he knew it would, “the system that I had faith in eventually proved itself to be worthy of that faith.”
“After the Storm,” by Joseph
He describes rejoining society as a “very surreal experience…an attack on all my senses.” After twenty-three years of bland prison food, he went out to a Mexican restaurant, and was overwhelmed by the wealth of flavors and spices in each bite. After half a lifetime of concrete walls and metal bars, Joseph’s eyes could finally see trees, insects, birds, grass, and the two beautiful lakes that sandwich downtown Madison.
Life out of prison was far from easy, however. Joseph’s disabilities prevented him from holding a job, but he was ineligible for disability payments from the government, because of all the years that he had spent inside prison during which he had not made social security payments. He lived in a homeless shelter, relying on the independence and self-sufficiency that he had developed in prison to help him survive.
Four years ago, soon after his release, Joseph discovered Madison-area Urban Ministry. He got involved with the Just Bakery program even before it had officially started, and volunteered at Just Bakery’s sales for a year-and-a-half before he was signed on as an official employee. Eventually, he began helping with production as well. In May of 2017, Joseph also became a student of the program, with the goal of getting his ServSafe certification. He also discovered that he has a knack for Baker’s Math.
Joseph describes Just Bakery as a “saving grace.” It has provided him with a community of people who he can trust, and who care about his well-being. Becoming a part of the Just Bakery team has “allowed me to move forward with my life.”
“Eagle’s Sunset Mendota,” by Joseph
In his spare time, Joseph enjoys practicing his photography skills on his favorite subject: Madison’s beautiful scenery and wildlife. The pictures that he takes are one step toward his goal of “living life to the fullest,” and appreciating everything that the world has to offer him.
…by Diana G…