In 2010, thanks to the work of the Ohio Innocence Project — an effort of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law to free wrongfully convicted and incarcerated people — Raymond Towler was exonerated of a wrongful conviction that robbed 29 years of his life.
When exonerees like Towler leave prison, the decisions and determinations that free them can come swiftly and with little notice, leaving them with little to no time to make preparations for life outside prison walls. Many leave with no money, housing or transportation but with a lingering criminal record that can take months to clear despite their newly established innocence. With their wrongful record trailing them, securing the basics like housing and a job can be nearly impossible.
In 2011, when the State of Ohio paid Towler $2.5 million to compensate for the nearly three decades he spent in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Towler was determined to put the money to good use. With a focus on stability, security and paying it forward, he began taking the first steps to what would become X-Freedom Studio.
Aiming to provide housing to both fellow exonerees and those with disabilities, the nonprofit that Towler started with his girlfriend, Kelly McLaughlin, soon used his settlement funds to purchase two homes tucked into the inconspicuous 1950s-era Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights.
One of the homes, a three-bedroom dubbed the Exoneree Home, was purchased in 2017 and is dedicated to providing free housing for exonerees. The other, purchased in 2019, is for those with disabilities, who pay a modest rent based on their often limited and fixed income.
Across the country, efforts such as New England Innocence Project’s Exonerees Network, the national Innocence Project’s Exoneree Fund and the state of California’s housing allowance help provide housing assistance to recently exonerated individuals, with many left leaning on their post-conviction attorneys for housing support. The Exoneree Home is believed to be the second permanent residential project for exonerees in the U.S. tied to the Innocence Network.
Resident Charles Jackson, left, stands with Isaiah Andrews, who also lived at the home and recently passed away. (Photo courtesy McLaughlin)
The house that became the Exoneree Home was originally an investment property that Towler rented to a few formerly incarcerated folks. But in 2018, Charles Jackson, who had met Towler in prison, was also exonerated after 28 years in prison through the Ohio Innocence Project and looking for a place to live after completing culinary school. That’s when the Exoneree Home was born. “Raymond and I talked about it and decided that we should invite him to live [in the home],” McLaughlin remembers. “He said, ‘I’ll give him the exoneree rate—F.R.E.E.’” Jackson has been there ever since.
To date, three exonerees have lived in the Exoneree Home, while two people with disabilities have lived in the other home. While modest and simple in scope, the impact that X-Freedom Studio has is anything but.
When Jackson first got out of prison he went to stay with a relative, but soon discovered just two days into his freedom that illegal activities were taking place there and he had to get out. While in school, he lived in housing provided by Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a nonprofit that helps previously incarcerated people establish careers in the culinary and hospitality industries. On his last day of school, Raymond and Kelly came in for a drink and offered him a place in the Exoneree Home.
“It makes all of the difference in the world. I don’t have to worry about bills, none of that,” Jackson says of the home. “Having somewhere to live, a safe place where you feel safe, then you can go and concentrate on other aspects of your life like getting a job or whatever it is.”
McLaughlin says the impetus for X-Freedom Studio is, at its foundation, a simple one.
“[Raymond and I] are both caring people” able to make a difference in peoples’ lives by simply being safe people that others can rely on, she says. That safety and sense of care is central to their work. While the Exoneree Home has three bedrooms, they’ve found that having just two people living there at a time strikes the best balance of comfort.
“It’s centered around the emotional wellbeing of the people who live there. We want them to be comfortable and happy,” she says.
She adds that the home is “a wonderful addition to the neighborhood” that’s embraced by the neighbors and broader community. A couple of times each year they host a volunteer day at each house to complete projects like planting flowers and painting the garage.
Raymond Towler and his girlfriend, Kelly McLaughlin. (Photo courtesy McLaughlin)
The Exoneree Home hosted its first block party last summer. It was attended by not only many neighbors, but a city councilwoman and the mayor. Since then, Towler and McLaughlin have been in conversation with city leaders about acquiring more properties at lower costs to expand their work.
But that’s just one method to propagating efforts like the Exoneree Home, McLaughlin says. “If there’s something thinking, you know, gosh, no one lives in my basement or I have a couple of extra rooms in my basement, a person could always get in touch with an Innocence Project in their state,” she says. “Or is there an owner of a company reading this article who could hire an exoneree?”
For Jackson, efforts like these add up to a common good. “People that get incarcerated, 99% of them are going to be coming home. We need to find some type of gateway to help them be in society,” he says. Beyond that, Jackson hopes to someday see legislation drafted that holds those responsible for wrongful convictions and the extensive damage they do accountable.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.