“That experience was very trying because each day you woke up faced with that fact that you’re in prison and you should not be there.”

That’s raw emotion from 56-year-old David Staples, who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. He told Local 4 News each day was a struggle.

David Staples (photo: Mike Colón)

“(You’re) hopeless … and you grasp at hope any way you can find it and you know it may come through a letter, it may come through any way you can find it. You just grasp and you hold onto it,” he told Local 4 News.

He says his family, friends and most importantly, his faith, helped him get through those trying times.

“Without God and my faith in God, I never would have made it through that program. I would have found many a reason, many opportunities … what we call going out the back door … and find a way to end it. And often being absolutely honest and vulnerable here, it felt like that often,” Staples said.

While serving time at the East Moline Correctional Center, Staples learned about the Augustana College prison education program and decided to work toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

He met Dr. Sharon Varello, a professor  at Augustana College, in 2021. He became the first of 10 students enrolled in the APEP program, earning 34 credits hours.

Varello says programs like these are needed inside of prisons to help people looking for a second chance.

“Education gives you options,” she said. “It enables you to see yourself and to learn and have pride in what you’re doing.”

Staples says he’s thankful for his professor’s encouragement throughout the process.

“Both inside and out, Dr. Varello has been amazing,” he said. “She’s one of the main reasons why I believed that I could be ‘Dr. Staples’.”

After years of working with the Illinois Innocence Project – a nonprofit organization that helps clear the names of people who are wrongly incarcerated – on Aug. 12, 2022, Staples was released from prison early for good behavior credits

“Sometimes words really fail to explain things,” he said. “It was relief. But if i say ‘relief’ it doesn’t seem strong enough to actually portray what I actually experienced. But yeah, it was about time.”

Staples enrolled as an on-campus student at Augustana College earlier this year.

He says he has faced many adjustments, like meeting his younger classmates on campus, as well as learning new technology.

But he didn’t let those obstacles get in his way.

“One class I kind of struggled in, but I maintained my 3.5-4.0 GPA (grade-point average),” he said.

Through it all, Staples says despite what he’s gone through, he’s determined not to be a victim of his circumstances.

“Instead of letting that be my bookmark, to actually make that just the chapter … that’s what I’m doing now, is about to actually further the story,” he said. “So that the end story won’t be I spent 29 years in prison for something I did not do.”