What Would You Want to Buy After Spending 30 Years in Prison?

When Glenn Ford became a free man last month, his friends had the idea to build him an Amazon registry for all the things he needed. But after a lifetime behind bars, where do you begin?
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This photo of Glenn Ford was taken by his lawyer on March 11, 2014—Ford's first day of freedom after 30 years in prison—near St. Francisville, Louisiana. (Gary Clements)

Last month, when Glenn Ford was released from prison for a crime he didn't commit, the state of Louisiana "gave him a $20 debit card for his troubles." That, plus the four cents he had left in his prison account, was all he had.

How do you build up the material accumulations of a lifetime overnight? How do you do it with no money? Where do you even begin?

Ford's friend John Thompson had a clever idea: Do what millions of Americans do when they are hoping that other people will buy them a whole bunch of stuff. Build an Amazon registry.

So Thompson and Ford sat down and started putting together a wish list. Soon they were joined by Danielle Mickenberg, an investigator with the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana, who had more experience navigating the Amazon site. "Typically what I do is not this at all," she told me. "This is kind of ... extra."

They began with the basics: household goods, such as toilet paper and paper towels, and clothes, lots of clothes. "That was the biggest thing he wanted and needed, because all he had was his prison clothes. That's all he's been wearing for 30 years," Mickenberg explained.

According to Mickenberg, the response has been overwhelming. She and Ford are continually having to meet to come up with more items to add to the registry because everything keeps getting bought up. "Every day, I come back and I'm like, we have to talk again. Because I don't want to get too low that people don't think that there's not much available for them to purchase." She says that around 300 items have been posted and at the moment there are only about 16 left (many of which are gift cards, which don't come down once they are bought up since Ford can use many of them, unlike, say, a dumbbell set, one of which will suffice).

Mickenberg has tried to keep the registry full of items at a range of price points so that no one shows up to a list full of big-ticket goods that they can't afford. "The things that are higher priced don't go off the list as quickly," but beyond that, she says, people seem to be willing to buy whatever he requests. 

"Some of it are things that he needs and some of it are things he just wants. Since it's a wish list, we just said, you know, put anything that you would wish for on it," Mickenberg says. They've requested (and received) bolo ties, movie tickets ("he hasn't been to the movies in over 30 years"), and food: frozen dinners, staples, and a fruit basket. In prison they would get a donation of bananas in December, but for the most part, Ford has not had fresh fruit in three decades. Since leaving prison, he's eaten his first mango. "The stuff he has access to now," Mickenberg observes, "it's pretty incredible."

The Amazon registry has "been an awesome tool" for the job. Mickenberg says they did additionally set up a PayPal account where people can donate to Ford directly but it hasn't gotten nearly the response of the registry. "Maybe people feel more comfortable," Mickenberg observes. "Maybe they want to give a thing, not just money." She can't see online where the Amazon donations are coming from but the PayPal donations are coming from all over the country, not just Louisiana. "It is a really nice moment in time, to see how people are reacting."

As for Ford, he's got a long road ahead of him. "He's working on rebuilding," Mickenberg says, "and is trying to stay a little private."

 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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