After 38 years in prison, old shackles are gone but new ones remain

Fred Clay
At age 17, Fred Clay was sentenced to life in prison without parole. 38 years later, his conviction was thrown out, and now he's trying to rebuild his life. Photo: Meredith Nierman/WGBH.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

For nearly 38 years, every time Fred Clay left prison for a court hearing, a medical visit or one of his transfers between five Massachusetts state prisons, he could depend on one thing: He’d be in chains.

This past July, as he sat over dinner with friends near Lowell — a year after a judge overturned his murder conviction and released him from prison — he talked about how it felt to be shackled.

“The leg irons tighten up. Each step you take, they tighten even more. They’re digging into your skin. You’re chained to other people,” he said. “I feel like I don’t want to say this, but I felt like I was back in the slavery days. Now I know how the slaves felt.”

The shackles are gone now — a painful memory. But Clay is feeling the effects of invisible shackles in his first year out of prison: emotional trauma and barriers to good-paying jobs and affordable housing.

Government bureaucracy has offered little help. Wrongfully convicted of murder, he is eligible for up to $1 million in compensation from the state and even immediate assistance to help with housing costs, job training and mental health treatment. These provisions are spelled out in a Massachusetts law just retooled last spring.

But Clay hasn’t gotten a dime from the state.

None of this surprises Sharon Beckman, a Boston College law professor who works with the New England Innocence Project.

“The innocent person released after years of wrongful incarceration … they’re on the courthouse steps with their lawyers looking very triumphant,” she said. “That person gets nothing from the state, no transportation home, no home, no apology, nothing.”

Fred Clay had just turned 16 when he was arrested and charged with murdering a Boston taxi driver. Convicted at 17, he was sentenced to life without parole and lost all the normal experiences of most of his teenage years and his entire adulthood. He never learned to drive a car, never got married and earned a GED behind bars.

In August of last year, Clay won his freedom, his legal team convincing a superior court judge and the Suffolk County prosecutor’s office that the conviction was tainted by questionable witnesses and testimony. One witness named Richard Dwyer was initially unable to identify Clay as one of three black males he saw climb into a taxi in Boston’s Combat Zone. But under hypnosis by Boston Police, he later said it was Clay he saw.

Clay and his lawyers filed suit in June asking the state to pay up for the injustice he suffered, but the process of negotiating with — and sometimes litigating against — the attorney general’s office can drag on for months and even years.

Lawmakers rewrote the compensation statute last spring and required the state to offer “preliminary relief” to people whose wrongful conviction claims are likely to succeed in court. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to have enacted such a policy, but there’s still no streamlined process for wrongfully convicted people like Fred Clay to get that help.

“If they were locked up for decades, they need help with technology. They need jobs, job training, education and assistance in navigating freedom,” said Beckman.

Clay is now learning basic tasks like how to use a smartphone, cook and pay rent from scratch.

Because Clay’s conviction was vacated and he is not on parole, he is ineligible for state-run programs — including access to a social worker — meant to help the roughly 3,000 ex-prisoners a year who transition into Massachusetts communities.

Clay did work with the reentry programs while he was incarcerated, but those services have seen steep cuts over the last decade. The Department of Corrections slashed reentry spending by about two-thirds over that period. That budget has increased a bit in recent years, but it is still only about $500,000 a year.

Outside prison, Clay also sought help from state-run career centers, but when he asked about job training last spring, he was told they had run out of money for the fiscal year.

“They’re telling me that they don’t got the funds for that right now, so they encouraged me to get a job at Home Depot,” he said.

Fred Clay with volunteers from Thrive.
Fred Clay meets with Samantha Gruca (L) and Pam Anderson (R), volunteers at Thrive Communities, a Lowell nonprofit that mentors people coming out of prison. Photo: Meredith Nierman/WGBH.

Frustration or just feeling overwhelmed are common feelings for Clay. He said he often wakes at 2 or 3 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep, so he grabs an iron and presses his clothes.

Because public transportation in Lowell is spotty, he sometimes takes a taxi or an Uber, which he says can trigger deep fear because of his conviction for killing a cab driver.

“When I got into the cab, I started wiping down everything, my fingerprints, everything, like [if] I step out of this cab they going to try a to arrest me for something else related to this cab. I was real, real scared,” he said.

Experts from the Innocence Project say emotional trauma is common for wrongly convicted people, and many don’t seek help from professional mental health providers because those years behind bars taught them to be stoic.

As Clay works on building a future, the past still grabs at him: memories of prison, a nagging fear of being sent back and the realization of what he lost to 38 years behind bars.

“All this stuff I’m trying to learn now I should have learned a long time ago. Or at least I should have some better knowledge of what I’m doing,” he said. “I just feel sad about a lot of things I’ve missed out on.

Advocates for wrongly convicted people say it’s up to the state to make things right for Clay.

“The fact that the system did not work properly and that a tremendous injustice and harm was suffered by an individual means the person deserves a fair compensation and reentry support plus an apology,” said Beckman, the Boston College law professor.

So far, the state has taken none of those actions. Instead, the state attorney general’s office is contesting Clay’s compensation suit.

Of the 71 people who have filed for compensation since 2005, less than half have gotten any money. And the average payout is about $364,000.

Some critics say Attorney General Maura Healey is overzealous in fighting wrongful conviction cases like Clay’s — a murder conviction already vacated by a superior court judge. Healey says her office is just following the law.

“The way the law lays it out is that person actually has to go to court, file a case and prove that they are actually innocent,” she said. “That’s a high standard.”

It’s a law that Healey now openly questions, even though it was just rewritten a few months ago.

“It would be really worthwhile to look at changing the law,” she said. “If the state erroneously convicted you, and deprived you of liberty, you should be compensated for that. I would like to explore with the legislature if there could be a different process set up.”

The biggest change Healey wants to see is lowering that bar of proving actual innocence.

Clay also wishes for a faster process but he’s not really counting on it. He tries not to think too much about the lawsuit and the possibility of a million-dollar windfall, which may sound like a lot of money, but would equal about $26,000 for each year he was wrongly imprisoned.

“Being 38 years out of my life, that’s not going to make up for that. So it’s small money,” he said. “They made me pay for someone else’s mistakes all these years, so why can’t they just admit that they made a mistake and not fight it?”