Cousins wrongfully imprisoned for 42 years get makeovers at South Side business

Michelle Gallardo Image
Wednesday, December 27, 2023
Cousins wrongfully imprisoned for 42 years get makeovers on S. Side
Cousins James Soto and David Ayala, who were wrongfully imprisoned for 42 years, got makeovers through Bronzeville's I Am A Gentleman Tuesday.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Cousins James Soto and David Ayala walked into Bronzeville's I Am A Gentleman studio Tuesday afternoon ready for a makeover.

The scene would have been unthinkable as they sat behind bars just two weeks prior. That was before their murder convictions were overturned -- 42 years after being imprisoned.

"I can't say enough how good it makes me feel to be in it. I mean, I had some boots on, some jeans, and now to have this on, it's transforming," Soto said. "Being able to have a new suit on, I'm going to wear it for the New Year's. It just makes me feel more human."

Soto and Ayala were wrongfully incarcerated longer than anyone else in state history.

The new wardrobes are part of a process of re-integration both men, now 60 and 62 years old, have been undergoing since their release on Dec. 14. Spending the holidays with loved ones and living the mundane has been an experience in itself.

"There's a lot to understand. I'll give you an example. We went to Walmart, and my brother, there was nobody checking us out. So, my brother was checking out, and I was 'this is the honor system? and he's like 'no, you scan everything,'" Ayala said. "My brother-in-law has Netflix. We want to watch a movie, we can get a movie. Speak into something, the movie comes up. It's really great."

"Sometimes it's difficult being around so many different people. These nephews, great-nieces. They don't know me. It's like being with family, but then again, you're like a stranger," Soto said.

For Soto, who is a graduate of Northwestern University's first class of incarcerated students, the next step is law school. Putting on a new pair of shoes and a tie is a first step to looking the part.

"I'm going to be working for the Northwestern Prison Education Program; so, the head of that has offered me a position," Soto said. "The goal is to work on-campus and go to school full-time. So that will be perfect. As a lawyer I'll be wearing plenty of suits, and so it's getting started right now is a good way to acclimate myself."

For I am a Gentleman, helping them to put their best foot forward as they navigate what comes next was a natural fit.

"When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you do good. And when you do good, the good news is that they pay good, and that's the ultimate goal," said Jermaine Lawrence, executive director of I Am a Gentleman.

The cousins will soon be navigating what it means to sit for an interview.

"This gives us the proper presentation, and gives us a normalcy that is required," Ayala said.

While both men's murder convictions were vacated, they are still pursuing certificates of innocence, which will fully expunge their records going forward.