All Eric Caine wants is a quiet place to lay his head.
A bed of his own in a modest home in a comfortable neighborhood, surrounded by friendly neighbors. It’s not so much to ask, especially for a man who spent the last quarter-century paying someone else’s debt to society.
Caine was incarcerated when he was 20 years old and left prison last winter a middle-aged man. After 25 years in a maximum-security facility, he finally managed to win the freedom he deserved all along.
“My cries for help were falling on deaf ears all those years,” Caine said, recalling the years of writing letters before someone finally took interest in his case.
In 1986, Caine was charged as an accessory in a home invasion and double murder. Among the police who questioned him at the time was former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. A recently convicted felon on perjury charges, Burge allegedly tortured hundreds of criminal suspects into false confessions. Caine was one of those suspects.
An attorney from the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, which provides legal assistance to wrongfully-convicted prisoners, found out about Caine.
“It blew their mind. They didn’t even know I existed,” Caine said.
Three different independent investigations, including one by the Internal Affairs Division of the Chicago Police Department and one by the State’s Attorney General’s Office, eventually helped prove Caine’s claim-that he had been tortured into a confession at the hands of Burge and his officers, and was in fact innocent of the crime that sent him to prison.
His wrongful imprisonment finally ended when Caine walked out a free man this spring on March 17. But the nightmare continued outside the prison walls.
“Since I’ve been out of prison, I’ve been struggling,” Caine said. “I’ve been paranoid. So much so that I see shadows in shadows in the dark. I can barely sleep, and when I do, I wake up sweating.”
‘It was like Alice in Wonderland’
But all that anxiety seemed to melt away the first time Caine set foot in the western suburb of Oak Park. The Chicago native is looking to live permanently in the affluent suburb bordering the city along Austin Boulevard. He was on his way to have breakfast at a pancake house on the West Side of Chicago when he passed over into Oak Park. He’d heard of the place before, but had never visited the area in his 20 years living in Chicago prior to going to prison.
“It was like Alice in Wonderland. Like I came through a carwash,” he said. “I felt so serene. So at peace, and I didn’t even know what the place was.”
He asked his friend, who told him they were in Oak Park. “It’s so different,” Caine said. “It’s like a whole different world. Even the air. I can’t even explain it.”
Caine remembers a woman jogging, a man biking, lots of activity, and many smiling faces.
He recalled, “I said, ‘I’m going to live here. I felt safe. I felt good here.”
He may have made up his mind, but there were still plenty of roadblocks ahead. Until recently, he was crashing on his aunt’s couch in Chicago and working a part-time job at a dog-walking company. Money, naturally, is an issue.
“They don’t pay much but it helps me out,” he said. “It’s not enough for me to pay rent or anything of that nature, but it gives me something to do.
Caine is entitled to restitution from the state for his wrongful imprisonment. But it’s a complex process to prove he was, in fact, innocent of the crime and not released from prison under other circumstances. That process is delaying any payoff. The ruling on whether or not his certificate of innocence is granted will be held in early September.
“To make a long story short, yes, I will be entitled to $199,000 because that’s the cap,” he said.
That money will come from the state, but Caine and his attorneys also have plans for a civil suit against the City of Chicago, which could eventually mean a lot more money. That, however, will take much longer, so for now, he is counting on restitution from the state to survive.
But he still needs full-time work to support himself.
In the meantime, he’s dedicating part of his time to help others like himself. Recently, Caine started working as a volunteer for the Chicago Innocence Project, founded by former Northwestern professor and innocence crusader David Protess.
An Oak Parker himself, Protess started the nonprofit organization after leaving the similar Innocence Project he launched while at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. While there, Protess worked as an investigative journalism professor and oversaw projects aimed at releasing innocent inmates from prison. In total, 11 innocent men have been freed from prison under Protess’ direction, including five from death row.
Caine has also found support from the Walk-In Ministry, an Oak Park-based nonprofit which acts as a referral agency to people in need of assistance.
“When we learned about Eric’s situation and that he wanted to be in Oak Park, we said I bet we could find some people who could find him housing,” said Cristy Harris, executive director of the Walk-In Ministry.
The first thing they did was call over to West Suburban PADS, a homeless shelter agency that also operates a transitional housing program. PADS found Caine short-term transitional housing in Oak Park, where he’s now staying while they help him find a permanent home.
They haven’t scouted out a home for Caine just yet, but Harris said it shouldn’t take long. When he does finally move to a permanent residence, Caine said he’ll be signing on for more volunteer work, this time at the food pantry, to give back to the people who have offered him so much.
“What we’ve done for Eric is really what we do for anybody who has needs in this community,” Harris said. “We encourage anybody who just can’t quite figure out how to get to where they want to be, how to make things better in their lives, to come and see us here.”
“That’s what I like the most,” Caine added. “I don’t like to live with problems, I like finding answers to problems. I’m a practical person. That’s why I’m not dwelling on my ordeal, even though it was just that, an ordeal
“Put it this way,” Caine added, “I’ve learned what the scripture really meant by being baptized by fire. I was scorched.”
Indeed, his prison time was bleak, and did not exactly pave the way for a successful life when released. After getting his GED in prison, he was not allowed to pursue any higher degrees, and no counseling was available to him to help through his darkest days. Caine said at his lowest point, he once tried to end his own life. But whatever kept him holding on continues to sustain him in his post-prison life.
“I have six principles I’m living my life by,” he said. “Love God first. Love people. Love life. No drama. No B.S. And no negative people – those are the six principles in my life.”
Waiting Game: Caine waits for the door to be opened at the Walk-In Ministry. “When I first set eyes on Oak Park everything changed, everything seemed more peaceful and I knew this was the place God wanted me to be,” he said.