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Richard Miles was a teenager when he was arrested and accused of murder. At 20, he was sentenced to 60 years behind bars.
He was an innocent man.
“I oftentimes say, ‘May 15, 1994 is the day that Richard Ray Miles, Jr. died.’ I became a number – 728716.”
Miles spent the next 15 years in a Texas prison. He was 34 when he was released in 2009.
“I was overwhelmed. I was 34 years old in age, but I was 19 from society standpoints. I had not dealt with the world, and I was literally scared,” he said. “I didn’t know about taxes and employment. The world was totally different.”
For two years, Miles struggled to get back on his feet. Ultimately, he found a job, a home, and today is married with a child.
His own struggles and seeing other formerly incarcerated individuals in the same situation were the impetus to start what is now Miles of Freedom, a nonprofit in Dallas that aims to help people transition and stay out of prison.
“I saw firsthand these points of despair for people coming home from prison. Yes, they committed a crime, but a lot of them wanted to do better, and they were just not in a space to do better,” said Miles, now 44.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More than 2 million adults were imprisoned or jailed in the United States by the end of 2016, according to recent federal statistics.
And oftentimes, one arrest is enough to get caught up in the criminal justice system. One study showed that nearly half of 25,000 federal offenders were rearrested for a new crime or parole violation after their release.
Miles was fully exonerated in February 2012 and used a portion of the money he received from the state to provide comprehensive reentry services for people and families affected by incarceration.
Operating in South Dallas, the nonprofit assists individuals returning home from prison by helping them obtain identification, enroll in college and secure housing. The group also provides computer and career training, financial literacy programs and job placement.
The Miles of Freedom Lawn Care Service provides temporary employment for men and women in the program. Miles also offers a shuttle service that takes family members to see their loved ones who are incarcerated.
“There are so many people making this happen,” Miles said. “One of my prayers is always to be humble; I very rarely want to be in the picture by myself. … At the age of 19, all I had was 60 years and a bunk. And God has given me so much at the age of 44.”
CNN’s Allie Torgan spoke with Miles about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What got you through the years that you were wrongfully convicted and locked up?
Richard Miles: The first thing is my faith. Because when the judge said I was guilty, everything let me down at that point in time. I felt the system let me down, the system is supposed to protect, it’s supposed to do justice. I went to church every day of my life. When I went to prison, I sure needed something, and so it was double-time trying to take it from more of a mental idea to something that I could stand on.
My mom and dad were a great factor, because they came to visit me. My mom would always tell me, “When you look out the window, don’t look at the bars, look at the sky.” It’s all about perception, you know. You might be in a situation that can’t change, but can you change in the situation? So, when they were gone and my situation didn’t change, I could change my perception within the place of incarceration.
I oftentimes tell people that there is a peace in being innocent. I was able to find that peace. I wasn’t an inmate. I was an innocent man in prison, and I could not let that slip from my mind.
CNN: Why is your work focused in South Dallas?
Miles: Our goal is to provide holistic services for areas impacted by incarceration. South Dallas is one of the areas that’s targeted for most people returning home from prison. We have quite a few people that are transitioning to Dallas by way of transitional homes.
Some of the challenges that people will face is that there are not a lot of jobs or employment opportunities. Through our case management services, we help individuals returning home from prison or who have been out for quite some time. We help them with anything that’s really needed for a person to be successful.
CNN: In addition to the support and job training programs, what else do you offer?
Miles: We take a deep dive into financial literacy, which is taught by Frost Bank. We also have a nine-lesson curriculum that deals with the soft skills, diversity and change in the workplace, sexual harassment—and all this stuff gets our participants ready for employment, which is very key. Because they’re coming from an institution that did not provide these skill sets to maintain employment.
We also have a youth program. We have high schools across the street where we go in and talk about going to prison, challenges, making the right choices. We host different community events, back to school events, where we’re able to talk with kids and family members about incarceration, staying out of incarceration and needs for education.
CNN: You also go back into prisons to offer encouragement.
Miles: Going back to prison to me is probably one of the best things that I’m doing right now because I feel like the people in prison are the ones that really, really need to know that it’s possible. Coming home is possible. Being successful is possible. So, when I’m able to go back in the prison and they hear that I’ve been there, that’s one thing that gives them encouragement.
It totally changes their mindset and puts them in a position to really look in the mirror and check themselves, like, “If this gentleman went through this and he was innocent, I know I can at least try to set myself up for success.” I’m healed by going in, because I can walk back out and encourage. And the men are healed, because they see somebody that was in there with them coming back.
Want to get involved? Check out the Miles of Freedom website and see how to help.
To donate to Miles of Freedom via CrowdRise, click here
CNN’s Drew Kann contributed to this report