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When Willie T. Donald learned he was being exonerated and released from prison in 2016 after spending 24 years behind bars for crimes he didn’t commit, he thought his life was about to get a whole lot better.
It didn’t, as the 52-year-old Gary, Ind., man came to learn.
In 1992, Donald was wrongly convicted for murder and armed robbery and sentenced to 60 years behind bars, missing big family events like his sister’s wedding and his father’s funeral.
Upon his release from prison, he had no savings, no car, no safety net to speak of and few job prospects. Life became difficult for him in new ways.
“I’m just trying to survive,” he tells PEOPLE.
Things changed for the better when he met Dr. Nicky Jackson, an associate criminal justice professor at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Ind., in February 2016, shortly after he was released from prison.
Determined to help Donald and other exonerees who unjustly sit in prison, waiting for justice to work the way they thought it was supposed to, Jackson got down to business.
With dogged persistence, the woman Donald calls his “big sister” helped him get a part-time job and a car. For nearly two years, she spearheaded conversations with local leaders about helping exonerees. She also met with state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, who, in 2019, authored new legislation that compensates exonerees for the soul-robbing years they spent in prison.
In 2020, Jackson started The Willie T. Donald Exoneration Advisory Coalition to connect Donald and others like him with the resources they need to get their lives back on track.
Back in 2016, “If you came out of prison in Indiana, because you’re innocent, they did nothing for you,” she says. “It was by the grace of God that he had his family. I wanted to make some changes.”
Like other exonerees, learning how to operate in a 21st century, technology-driven world proved to be an unexpected hurdle for Donald.
Though he earned two college degrees in prison, he had trouble figuring out little things most people take for granted, like the Keurig coffee machine he encountered in a waiting room after his release.
“I never saw a Keurig machine before,” he says. “So, I got the little cup thing and peeled the top of it off and put the coffee in a cup and put some hot water in.”
He faces bigger issues as well. Even though he’s exonerated, the convictions will remain on his record until he can have them expunged — at his expense.
When he’s not working, he helps Jackson as a board member for the coalition. He also spends lots of time with his family and his girlfriend of four years: “I’m a family man,” he says.
His friendship with Jackson helps him get through the toughest of days. “Not everyone has a Mrs. Jackson,” he says. “She helped me out so much.”
Jackson says the feeling is mutual. “My life has changed and been enriched more so maybe than even Mr. Donald’s,” she says. “He’s given me so much.”