Exonerated former prisoners work to ease transition for others freed

CHICAGO -- More than 2,300 former prisoners in America are now free after being exonerated. Many have spent much of their adult lives serving time in rough, maximum security prisons.

After that experience, getting used to society can be overwhelming, but two former prisoners are trying to help ease that transition to freedom.

Television cameras recorded Kristine Bunch's every step when she was set free from prison nearly six years ago.

She served 17 years for the arson fire that killed her own 3-year-old son. But she was innocent and the fire was later determined to be electrical. But when the cameras turned off, Bunch had to begin the rest of her life.

"The moment you get out is incredible," Bunch said. "Then the cameras leave and you realize you don't even have a toothbrush."

Bunch is still adjusting, still getting to know her now 21-year-old son who was born shortly after she went to prison.

She's also trying to help others in her situation. She started a foundation to help other exonerees adjust to freedom after many years in prison called Justis4justus.

"No one can walk in our shoes or understand but us," said Juan Rivera.

Rivera works with Bunch. He spent 20 years behind bars for the murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan. DNA evidence eventually set him free.

"We don't know what normal is," he said.

After spending his 20's and 30's in a maximum security prison, Rivera said he was determined to make something of his life when he got out. He and his partner now run a barber school in the south suburbs teaching low-income high school students to cut hair.

Experts said Rivera and Bunch are doing better than most

Innocence Project director Lauren Kaeseberg said convicted prisoners who serve their time and get out are eligible for help from the state transitioning to freedom. But, ironically, if you serve time and are later found innocent, the state offers nothing.

Bunch now speaks about her experience to audiences all over the country. She also filed a lawsuit against investigators, who she said falsified evidence in her case. Rivera filed a similar suit a couple years ago and received a $20 million settlement. He said he would rather have the years he lost in prison than the money.

But both said now that they are finally free they are determined to make the most it.

"Make the system better for the next person coming through," Bunch said.

"I'm at peace, doing things I'm passionate about," Rivera said.

Kaeseberg said by a conservative estimate there are about 2,000 inmates who are innocent serving time in Illinois prisons right now. The legal process of proving their innocence however often takes nearly a decade, and that's if the falsely convicted can get an attorney to take up their case.

It's a long road and it doesn't get easier after they get out.