People who are wrongfully convicted face major challenges to reenter society, such as finding housing and work — and most endure them without help from the government.

To help ease the reentry process, three men who spent decades in prison cofounded the Exonerees Network, funded through the New England Innocence Project. Two cofounders — Sean Ellis and Victor Rosario — joined Boston Public Radio to discuss how the network provides support and empowerment for people released from prison after having served time for wrongful convictions.

Ellis was just 19 when he was arrested for the 1993 murder of police detective John Mulligan. His first two trials ended in hung juries, and he was convicted during the third. Years later, Boston Police detectives who were pivotal to his conviction pled guilty to corruption charges, casting doubt on evidence they found. In 2015, his murder conviction was overturned, and he was released on bail after spending more than two decades in prison. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges.

Even though the state made a mistake in Ellis' case, he said his probation officers didn't help him in any way or even check in on him, except to put a GPS tracker on his ankle.

"I went from prison to, you know, staying in a room of somebody that I met through my mom but I had no immediate, direct connection with. And I stayed in that room for for a period of time," said Ellis. "But there's other individuals that get out of prison and have to stay on [or] sleep on a couch or sleep in a hotel room."

He explained how exonerees don't just need help with large tasks, but also with everyday activities and tools that might seem foreign after spending so much time in prison. Ellis said people reentering society must "grow back into empowerment" by making decisions for themselves and learning new skills that may seem commonplace to those who have never been incarcerated.

"Someone gifted me a laptop when I came home. And if I didn't have somebody there to show me how to turn it on, I wouldn't know how to turn it on," Sean said. "And so when you're needing help turning on a laptop — and that's something that's very simple — people get real impatient very quickly and say, 'Well, let me do it for you.' And they don't mean any harm by it, but they don't understand how much that impedes on your progress."

Victor Rosario was 24 years old when he saw an apartment building on fire. He says he punched a fist through a window to try to rescue people trapped inside. Ultimately, eight people died in the blaze, including five children. Rosario was arrested after giving an interview about his rescue efforts and confessing to arson, but he later said he was pressured by police and was going through severe alcohol withdrawal at the time and for years afterward. He maintained his innocence, fought for his freedom, and in 2014, after 32 years in prison, his conviction was overturned. New evidence not only raised concern that his confession was coerced, but showed that the fire was likely not caused by arson.

Rosario said when he was released, transiting back to society was easier for him than it is for others: he had a job, a place to live and support from his family. But he noticed others weren't so lucky.

"When I saw so many others, they don't have the same blessing I had, I was wondering how I can help," he said.

That's why he decided to help establish the Exenorees Network. Since its founding in 2020, it has helped exonerees get mental health services, housing and job training. But it has also become a community of people who understand each other's struggles.

The state legislature recently passed a budget that gave $250,000 to the Exonerees Network over the next year. Ellis said he's thankful for the money, but it is not nearly enough to pay for everything exonerees need to successfully reintegrate into society.