The Dreams Project
With the assistance of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, Witness to Innocence established the DREAMS Project as the first and only social service and financial assistance program devoted exclusively to exonerated death row survivors in the United States. The DREAMS Project (Death Row Exonerated Assistance, Mentoring, and Support) is the backbone of WTI, supporting the needs of exonerated death row survivors for whom no local, state, or federal government agency in the United States is assigned responsibility.
What Exonerees face after being freed:
The main consequences of wrongful imprisonment on exonerated death row survivors include lifelong physical, mental health,and economic issues. Most exonerated prisoners leave their jail cells with no housing, or reliable social supports and little or no financial compensation in the years after their release.
Compensation for time lost for wrongful conviction varies according to the state in which a person is incarcerated. Many states do not have laws regarding compensation and states that do provide compensation often have lengthy, complicated processes to acquire compensation.
Many exonerees face physical and mental health challenges that have been exacerbated by their time in prison making it difficult to navigate resources and to maintain employment, stable housing and proper healthcare.
Compounding all of these issues is that due to their experiences of wrongful incarceration, most exonerees have trust issues with ANY public figure, mental health or service professional, and those in power in most capacities. This is a large reason that the DREAMS project is so vital - it provides crucial peer support and a consistent trusted social worker to help death row survivors overcome trust issues and connect to the resources they need.
Peer support is a key component of the DREAMS project and the cornerstone of Witness to Innocence. WTI was founded on the idea of connecting exonerated death row survivors with other people who had a shared experience and understood many of the issues that they faced.
Fostering community among members of WTI and allowing them to connect with one another is a main goal of the DREAMS project.
WTI has three peer specialists on staff, who have been trained by the Director of Social Work to provide support services to their fellow members.
Empowering Death Row Survivors:
The DREAMS project assists exonerees with accessing education, employment, housing, medical, and social welfare services. By providing supports to our members, we also support the abolition of the death penalty for the approximately 2639 prison inmates who continue to suffer on US death rows. Exonerated death row survivors are able to continue contributing to the movement to abolish the death penalty because the DREAMS project provides the stability and consistent care they need as they make an impact by sharing their painful stories.
While their public advocacy has profound impact on the movement toward death penalty abolition, the act of telling their stories can reawaken trauma as exonerees relive their experiences on death row. The more we can support them, the better equipped they will be to go out and speak, which will result in increased success toward abolition and increased compensation for exonerated survivors of death row.
The WTI Emergency Fund provides for the direct needs of exonerated death row survivors.Without this critical lifeline, many exonerees would struggle to pay for medical bills, rent, transportation costs, and more.
The Irving and Phyllis millstein Companion Animal Fund for Death Row Exonerees:
WTI is honored and grateful to have received funding from the Irving and Phyllis Millstein Foundation for Animal Welfare to launch this addition to the DREAMS Project.
Through this fund, exonerees are provided with food, litter, and basic needs for their companion animals, along with routine grooming, veterinary care, and emergency pet needs. The program has also allowed WTI to fund the adoption of a companion animal for exonerees without.