Apply to Manhattan Country School
6-7s Building Study: Progressive Education

MCS Alumna Raises Awareness About the Wrongfully Convicted

MCS Alumna Raises Awareness About the Wrongfully Convicted

Friday, November 18, 2016

I currently live in Chicago with my husband, Sotiri and I work as an internal auditor for Draper and Kramer, Inc., a property and financial services corporation. When I leave work, I do a lot of other things occupy my time. I am a massage therapist, chef, baker, granola maker and singer. I am the daughter of a civil rights activist and a brilliant pianist who both got me to this place. My parents afforded me experiences of a lifetime—Manhattan Country School was one of them, Francis W. Parker High School in Chicago, another. I attended the University of Wisconsin and it informed my life as well, but did not nearly compare to my experiences at the former school. I love my life and have loved it as long as I have lived it, even through the tough and challenging times.

The crowing jewel of my life, aside from marrying my husband, has been the publication of Pruno, Ramen and a Side of Hope: Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction. My co-author, Nikki Pope, a Parker schoolmate, and I gathered 10 stories from wrongfully convicted men and women and an additional story from the storyteller’s loved-one to illustrate how wrongful conviction happens and how it affects more than just the innocent victim. These stories opened my eyes to the grave injustice of incarcerating the innocent and its effect on their lives, their families and friends, and the communities in which they live. The other absolutely disturbing thing about wrongful conviction is that it can happen to most anyone. Surely, you or I could be mistakenly identified and sent to prison for a term of one to 30+ years, or even death. I think we know that even one day in prison or jail for a crime we didn’t commit is the real crime and one that must be solved. Since statistics have been collected, more than 1,900 men and women have been released from prison and exonerated for crimes they did not commit. Each year, the exoneration numbers increase over the previous year. These numbers are a clear indication that our criminal justice system is in dire need of reform.

The men and women who provided their heartbreaking stories to The Pruno Project are an extraordinary group of folks. Before they were incarcerated, they had dreams, families, responsibilities, diplomas to earn, only to lose them because of a poorly prepared defense team, or the misrepresentations of a prosecutor, or the confessions of witnesses who had no connection to or involvement with the crime. The amazing thing I learned about these men and women was the strength of their spirit, their ability to endure, and their gratitude, which, quite frankly, was and continues to be astonishing. I see red when I hear these stories. I certainly thought they would see the same. Not so for these exonerees. Some were angry when they were released, and really angry when incarcerated, but upon their release they were weathered enough to realize that the anger would take more time away from their lives. I was in awe; I remain still. How did I get here? I heard stories from two wrongfully convicted men that confounded me and realized that something had to be done. I answered the call. (In addition to developing The Pruno Project, I sit on the board of Life After Justice, a non-profit organized to support the exonerated by providing access to re-entry support services.

Nikki and I recently produced and released the Pruno audiobook to amplify the voices of these courageous men and women, to bring a broader awareness to wrongful conviction and to the malaise that has beset our justice system. Exonerees are not entitled to the same support that is, by law, provided to ex-felons and it has been our mission to support our exoneree storytellers. Fifty percent of our proceeds go to our storytellers to help them manage their way through a vastly different world—one that seemingly let them down. I am appealing to all I know to help us in this effort. We hope our project will help us live out our mission. Check out our website for more information at www.prunoproject.com. We’d love to hear from you!

I am, in part, the person that I am because of my life at Manhattan Country School. The school’s philosophical approach to education provided an excellent foundation in civil and social justice. I took that and ran with it and here I am. Thank you!

Courtney Lance '72