Philly nonprofit needs help sending exonerated former inmates to ‘Innocence’ conference

If you weren’t guilty to begin with, life after prison still isn’t easy.

Donte Rollins with staff members from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project

Donte Rollins with staff members from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project
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Fifteen months after he was freed from prison, Donte Rollins has trouble adjusting to normal life. He’d originally been convicted of participating in a 2006 shooting that left a child paralyzed, and was facing a lengthy sentence of 62 to 125 years.

But Rollins maintained he wasn’t guilty, and after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project took up his cause, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reviewed his case and let him go. The 31-year-old is extremely thankful, because even the few years he spent behind bars were devastating.

“My life was stripped away from me,” he explained. “That’s the thing that I struggled with everyday, knowing that I could have died in prison.”

Now that he’s out, the PIP is working to send him and three others to the Innocence Network Conference later this month.

The conference provides exonerees like Rollins with a couple of days of helpful programming that covers topics specific to their situation. There are workshops on art therapy, classes on how to speak public, and sessions to help them feel more confident sharing their stories — all of which can help them find employment and generally deal with day-to-day life on the outside.

Also, networking. “That opportunity to be with others who know what they have gone through,” said PIP Executive Director Marissa Bluestine, “and give their family members a chance to be with other family members who know what they’ve gone through — is really an extraordinary opportunity.”

Per Bluestine, the annual conference attracts exonerees from all over the world. Her organization is able to pay for some clients to attend the first year they’re released, she said, but not everyone, and not more than once.

So the PIP is fundraising — but so far, with only modest success.

A page on nonprofit crowdfunding platform Razoo has raised less than $400, nothing near the $12,000 goal. That money is needed to afford airfare and hotels, Bluestine said.

“We cover their conference cost,” she explained. “This covers them being able to get there and having a place to stay.”

Bluestine is still determined to get Rollins and others to the event, which takes place March 23-24 in Memphis, Tenn. In addition to crowdfunding, the PIP has been working with different universities, including Arcadia, to get the word out about their needs. Staffers have also been reaching out to law firms they work with, and making pleas on social media.

There’s also a benefit happy hour set for Thursday, March 15 at the Black Sheep Pub in Center City. All proceeds will go straight to the cause.

Rollins was lucky enough to attend the conference last year, and feels it’s immeasurably beneficial to people in his situation. He also wants

“[It’s] a good experience just to be around other people who have been exonerated,” he said. “Coming from prison it’s hard — you’re in a unique situation.”