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'It's like walking into a different planet': Exonerees share struggles of being released from prison

Exonerees speak out about being released
Posted at 10:17 PM, Nov 24, 2021

KANSAS CITY, MO — Time stood still inside the walls of prison for three men who are now working to regain their sense of normalcy after being exonerated.

Kenneth Nixon spent 15 years and nine months behind bars, Marvin Cotton Jr. spent 19 years and seven days behind bars and Corey McCall spent 16 years, two months and seven days behind bars — all for crimes they did not commit.

“It’s like walking into a different planet,” Cotton, a founding member of the National Organization of Exonerees, said. "I didn’t feel anything. I was just numb, I was battle worn. It was like I was shell shocked after so many years after battling war.”

It's a war that has left Cotton and other exonerees scarred as they work to re-enter society.

“When people talk it’s confusing, the way people shop is confusing, the way people handle business is confusing,” Kenneth Nixon, chairman of the National Organization of Exonerees, said.

These simple tasks were confusing and hard to grasp for Nixon, Cotton, McCall, and others who have spent years locked in what they describe as cages behind barbed wire.

“I hate to grocery shop, having so many options when I had no options or very few options for so long, and just walking into the grocery store and you see all of this stuff," Cotton said. "It will literally take me three, four, five hours to literally shop."

The confusion spreads to social activities, too.

“I went to a concert and I felt uncomfortable, when I first came home, really trying to enjoy myself with my family, and being around people and feeling safe. You have to watch your back," McCall, who is a member of the National Organization of Exonerees, said.

These men, and other exonerees, are now using their positions to help men like Kevin Strickland, who is on a long road to recovery from being lost in time.

“It’s the championship belt that no one wants,” Cotton said.

But, the men know how overwhelming release can be from experience.

“It’s mental health, housing, whatever it is that he needs, we understand what its like to experience it," Nixon said. "We are going to be there every step of the way."

Now that they're out, they represent both the problems and solutions built in to the criminal justice system.

“We are evidence that system is broken, but him walking out of prison and us walking out of prison is proof that the system can work,” Cotton said.