LIFE was his sentence, life is what he got back

LIFE was his sentence, life is what he got back

by Kirsten D. Levingston

Last week a slew of new television shows hit the small screen including NBC's LIFE, which offers a fresh take on the justice system. "Life was his sentence, life is what he got back," was one of the show's more memorable lines, delivered by a lawyer for the lead character, cop Charlie Crews, who helped the officer secure freedom after his wrongful murder conviction and a dozen years behind bars. These days exoneration stories are readily ripped from the headlines. Unfortunately, though, certain aspects of LIFE's premise are more like science fiction. When, upon his release, Crews negotiates a multi-million dollar settlement and a return to the police force (at the higher rank of detective), it's pure Hollywood. Still, other aspects of Crews' return home actually hit home.

One of the most powerful images of this opening show is a shot of Crews and his partner leaving a prison after questioning an inmate. They walk along a high concrete prison wall, past the words "No Re-Entry" that appear in bright red letters. Is this a message directed at people on their way into prison, signaling they are leaving freedom behind? Or is it directed at those leaving the institution, a command to stay on the straight and narrow and never return? Therein lies the show's drama, as Crews sets out to return to the world, and the police force behind his wrongful conviction.

On his first day back on the job Crews stares up at the sky, as if trying to identify the bright orange orb floating there. He is alone - his wife, who erred in believing Crews was a murderer, has divorced him. His estranged father dare not call directly, instead communicating through the lawyer who secured Crews' freedom. His mother is dead, Crews believes because his father cut off all ties to him post-conviction.

Incarceration places huge stresses on families, pressures that most of us could not imagine. Some people write off family members who go to prison. Others want to stay in touch and maintain relationships with incarcerated fathers, mothers, and children, but simply can't do it - perhaps because calls to prison cost too much, or their loved one is locked up in a prison that is hundreds of miles away. Federal and state laws intended to protect children by placing them in foster care sometimes operate to rip apart families when a parent is in prison, even when those families could, with help, be preserved and reunified.

Crews' incarceration not only disconnected him from his family, it divorced him from a contemporary reality. The ring of his own cell phone is a foreign sound, one to which he pays no attention. When a young witness talks about "IMing" Crews hears an indecipherable language. Before long he is reading "Internet for Idiots," and when his partner e-mails a photo to his phone he realizes he's "living in the future."

It's no wonder Crews, like many people returning home from prison, feels out of place. Transitioning from a stagnant, sometimes violent prison routine to freedom takes time. The Crews character, for example, would have been locked up since 1995 - long before 9/11. He would have missed the elections of two California governors and the recall of one. At the department he would have missed the coming and goings of five police chiefs and the introduction of LAPD's all-important statistical crime mapping, which is credited with helping make Los Angeles the second safest big city in the country in 2005, more news to Crews. Crews' settlement ensured he did not have to worry about how or where to live, or find a job. However most people returning home from prison must struggle with the social and family adjustments even as they struggle to provide the basics - food, shelter, clothing - for themselves and, at times, family members as well.

Even as he tries to adjust and live in this future, Crews is dogged by his past. When a friend introduces him to "Google" Crews has a painful epiphany - upon searching his name he sees article after article linking him to the grisly murders he did not commit. It doesn't matter that his conviction was a mistake. In that moment he realizes he will always be linked to these criminal acts. Crews clearly does not deserve being branded by events he had nothing to do with. But even those who have committed criminal acts deserve more. Once they have been sentenced and paid their debts to society, they deserve a chance to put their misdeeds behind them and move on. Despite his full pockets and exoneration, Crews' conviction haunts him. For over half a million men and women released annually from prison, those ghosts are real.

Hopefully LIFE will continue to explore terrain generally undiscovered by past network crime dramas - the hearts, experience, and torment of people who return home after spending time behind bars.

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