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From Prison Cell to CEO: 8 Lessons Learned After 15 Years of [Wrongful] Incarceration

7 min read

Picture yourself spending night after night, awake in a prison cell knowing you were serving a 60-year sentence of someone else who got away with murder.

"Your past is a rearview mirror that you look in, every so often. Your future is the windshield which is larger than your rearview mirror.”
Richard Miles

In 1994, Richard Miles was wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated for murder and aggravated assault from a fatal incident that took place outside a Texaco gas station along the Northwest Highway in Dallas, Texas. Night after night, Richard Miles lay awake in a prison cell knowing he was serving a 60-year sentence of someone else who got away with murder.

Fifteen years later in 2009, he walked out of prison in Tennessee Colony, Texas on personal recognizance bond. However, despite his freedom he stood outside the correctional facility as an innocent man with a criminal record.

Three years passed until the day of February 15, 2012, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the lower court ruling and found Miles completely innocent. At the age of 34, he would finally be declared innocent, and with help from Centurion Ministries, a prison advocacy organization in New Jersey, his name exonerated.

Having spent over a dozen years quarantined away from the rapid onset and proliferation of things such as the internet, cloud computing, and the mobile revolution, Miles found himself returning to a vastly different world than the one he left.

“When I left, [it was] beepers,” he told a journalist. “When I came back, [it was] iPhones.”

To compensate for its mistake and impinging deprivation on an innocent man, the state of Texas awarded Miles money that he used to found the nonprofit Miles for Freedom, an organization that assists anyone released from prison to find opportunities for education, employment, and housing.

Today, Miles leads his organization, which has helped over 200 men and women formerly incarcerated secure jobs at companies including Embassy Suites, Altus Traffic, and Rising Star. His case, Miles vs. State of Texas, is the first non-DNA, non-confession exoneration, and is now a permanent part of Texas legal history.

Miles has been a guest on numerous platforms in radio, television, and stage – speaking on topics ranging from wrongful incarceration to education to the prison pipeline. His story is memorialized in the book Tested written by Dorothy Budd and Peyton Budd.

This account only scratches the surface of Richard Miles’ inviolable story.

Nevertheless, as someone who has persevered through the dark side of the American justice system, wrestled with undeserved existential agony for years, and overcome deleterious adversity, Miles has learned important life lessons. Below are his eight takeaways about how to stay positive amid dismal circumstances, how to adapt to a changing environment, and how to leave the past behind and view the future with hope.

8 Life Lessons From Richard Miles, Exoneree to Chief Executive Officer

1. Believe the contrary. When you’re steeped in an identity that’s not true for years and years, the lies can become too great to overcome. The family and friends who surround Miles say they’re impressed by the way he’s been able to shirk bitterness and approach life with a pure heart, writes Shawn Shinneman from Longreads.com. “Every person wants to believe that we are actually free,” says Miles. “Every person wants to believe that all men are created equal.” When you run smack-dab into evidence to the contrary, he says, you can let it turn you cold. Or, you can do your small part to stop the injustice.

2. Replace anger with accountability. Miles recognizes that people are compassionate towards exonerees. But he’s disappointed if the strong feelings don’t result in action. There’s so much compassion for exonerees, he says. But compassion only goes so far. “They’re so compassionate about us coming out that the compassion overrides the — I don’t want to say anger — but the accountability aspect of the whole thing,” Miles says. The Dallas Observer writes that, for him, “All that matters is that [legal prosecutors] find some course of action.”

3. Stay busy working and outpace your thoughts of the past. When someone exits prison, it’s disorienting and often unclear what to do next. This “bottom dropping out” sense of reality can often contribute to recidivism. When Miles was released, he had a six month plan with specific goals, including staying with his mom, re-enrolling in college, finding a job, and getting an apartment. This “busy-ness” activity helped him keep his mind working on solving problems in the future, not mulling over the injustices of the past. To keep optimism high, stay proactive and think: “Less dwelling, more doing.”

4. Learn as much as you can. Go to classes. In prison, Miles earned his associate degree, but out of prison, “College is totally different,” he said. “We did not use computers at all in prison so finishing my degree was really difficult.” Yet, he continued to show up despite the embarrassment and difficulty. Not only did it keep his mind preoccupied, he learned how to use a computer and took classes in public speaking, which terrified the quiet introvert inside him. But the course helped him gain confidence and today, he uses these skills on a daily basis.

5. Stay close to family during trials. “Of my fifteen years in prison, fourteen of those years, my dad made sure my mom visited me every month,” said Miles. “For me, visitations are very important.” He cites his family and spiritual upbringing as two major pillars that helped him on both sides of the prison bars. Six months before his release, his father passed away. To remember him, Miles of Freedom founded the Bridging the Gap shuttle service, a bi-monthly transportation offering in Dallas to bring together families separated by incarceration. Eventually, Miles’ belief in family led him to ask his life partner Latoya for her hand in marriage in 2013. Five years and a vibrant three-year-old later, Miles continues to believe in and rely on family for joy and strength.

6. Mentor others. Mentorship holds a special place in Miles’ heart. He mentored one man, Tyrone, for three years. Tyrone started his own lawn care business and was eventually hired to manage Miles of Freedom Land Maintenance which provides work ethic training and stipends for members. Tyrone’s story is an example of how mentorship has a positive ripple effect in a community, especially in entrepreneurship. In fact, all of Miles of Freedom’s social enterprise partners are run by graduates. “I care a lot about mentorship,” said Miles.

7. Financial literacy is the most important thing you can learn. During his time in prison, Miles’ family got to know Mrs. Joyce Ann Brown, Dallas’s first and only African American female falsely incarcerated and proven innocent (Centurion Ministries was also the organization that worked to free her). Mrs. Brown founded Mothers (and Fathers) for the Advancement of Social Systems (MASS), an organization that assisted men and women returning home from prison. After learning about what happened to Miles from his mother, Mrs. Brown made the call to Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion, in advocacy of Richard’s innocence. Upon Richard’s release and exoneration, Mrs. Brown became Richard’s mentor and friend. She taught Miles a curriculum of nine lessons that focused on soft skills, including time management, personal finance, and workplace management. “Before she passed, she saw that Miles of Freedom was serious,” he said. “So she gave me the nine lessons she had been using.” Since 2013, the curriculum, and a partnership with Frost Bank for financial literacy program has been foundational base for the Miles of Freedom job readiness workshops.

8. Use your story for a good cause. “When people hear about Miles of Freedom, I want people to appreciate Miles of Freedom for the work we are doing rather than elevating Richard Miles specifically as the exoneree,” the founder said. Rather than tucking away his compensation for himself, or spending it on campaigns for self-vindication, Miles pours his time and resources into growing the organization and leverages his story to build something beyond himself.

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