Glenn Ford's First Days of Freedom After 30 Years on Death Row

Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Metal spoons. What's re-entry like for a man who last breathed free during Ronald Reagan's first term as president?
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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)

Anywhere he wanted to go, the jubilant defense attorneys told a hungry Glenn Ford late Tuesday afternoon as they left the television cameras behind, piled into their car, and left the yawning grounds of Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. Ford was hungry, very hungry, because from the moment he had learned that he would be released from death row—after serving 30 years there for a murder he did not commit—he had decided that he would not eat another morsel of prison food.

On their way back to New Orleans, driving on State Highway 61, there was this one restaurant that Ford had wanted to try, but it had closed for the day. And then the relieved lawyers and dazed client passed a gas station that served Church's fried chicken and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Doughnuts? Ford pondered the possibility until the car was about a mile further down the road. "Look, if you want doughnuts we'll get you doughnuts," even if they come from a gas station, attorney Gary Clements told his longtime client.

So they pulled a U-turn and arrived back at the gas station. The lawyers got out of the car and started to walk in. Ford stayed in the car. It did not immediately occur to him that he would have to open the door himself to get out. When you are on death row for 30 years, when every door in your life is opened and closed for you every day by guards, you forget that you have to reach out and grasp the handle to move from one place to another. "He was just sitting there and waiting for someone to come and tell him he could get out," Clements told me.

That moment, the moment Glenn Ford hesitated inside that car on his way to get his first doughnut since Ronald Reagan was president, crystallizes the challenges that exonerees face upon their release from prison. In an instant they go from a world where they have virtually no choices to a world in which their choices seem limitless. And they go from a world in which they have no control—over opening a door, for example—to one in which they can, indeed, control their own fate.

Some exonerees make the transition to free life more smoothly than others. Some, like John Thompson, become selfless advocates for other exonerees. But some promptly get in more trouble with the law or with people seeking to take advantage of them. Those heartbreaking scenes from Shawshank Redemptionthe ones in which the paroled inmates struggle with life on the outside, are closer to the truth than anyone outside this tiny corner of the law truly knows. These men are free, you see, but their freedom is only the start of their journey.

 ***

Just before Glenn Ford walked out of prison late Tuesday afternoon, the state of Louisiana—which had wrongfully charged, convicted, and incarcerated him for 30 years—gave him a $20 dollar debit card for his troubles. (As recently as 2011, the state gave only $10 to inmates leaving prison.) When you combine the debit card with the balance in Ford's prison account, the total he received upon his departure from Angola was $20.04. He left, too, with some photographs and with his medicine, all in two small boxes. He left behind his headphones.

It was the first time that Ford had gone outside in seven years. Seven years. Not because he had been placed in solitary confinement, like Herman Wallace, but because prison officials had so restricted the outdoor activities of the men on death row that Ford considered the exercise futile. He is 64 years old now, remember, with bad knees and hypertension. He didn't want to be outside it if meant being outside in a tiny cage, like an animal, without shade.

Before he left the prison, the head warden at Angola, the legendary Burl Cain ("God's Own Warden" as he has memorably been called) shook Ford's hand and told him that if he, Ford, had any problems on the outside, "you give me a call." It was like another surreal scene from another prison movie. But Ford took this as a sincere gesture, even though it came from an official who has presided over conditions of confinement at Angola that are so deplorable and inhumane that they have been declared unconstitutional by the courts.

Ford has gained a great deal of weight recently—30 pounds or so, according to his attorneys—and he had long complained to prison doctors about a variety of ailments and illnesses. Before he left the prison on Tuesday, he reported to the medical office for a physical. However, by the time he got there, ready for inspection, Ford told his attorneys that prison staff already had completed his medical form and handed it to him. So much for his final prison physical. On Thursday, his attorneys told me, Glenn Ford finally went to a real doctor for treatment for his illnesses.

Some exonerees don't sleep the first night or two after their release—the jolt to their bodies, and to their minds, is so profound. But after his first meal of chicken, french fries and doughnuts, and after watching some television, Ford reportedly slept well Tuesday night—slept in late, in fact. And on Wednesday, he drank his first cup of water from a real glass and used a metal spoon for the first time since 1983. There are going to be a lot of firsts for Glenn Ford now that he's free from that tiny cell.

***

In addition to the medical treatment he will receive, there now will be counseling for Ford, formal and otherwise. Already he's been earnestly guided by another recent Louisiana exoneree, a man named Calvin Duncan, who now is a Soros Justice Fellow after spending 28 years of a life sentence at Angola for a murder he did not commit. Duncan's story, like John Thompson's tale, is a story of courage and redemption. And if Ford listens to him, and all the other sincere people around him, this tragic story may have a happy ending after all.

Soon, Ford's lawyers will ask Louisiana to compensate him for his wrongful conviction and incarceration. By statute, Louisiana today entitles people like Ford to get $25,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned, a figured capped at $250,000. Ford also will be entitled to up to $80,000 for what the law euphemistically calls "loss of life opportunities." If Louisiana honors its commitment to this man, as it should, he will receive in the neighborhood of $330,000 for 30 years of an unjust sentence—roughly $11,000 per year.

There is still a chance that Caddo Parish prosecutors, the ones who finally decided to bring a measure of justice into Glenn Ford's life, will contest the award of these funds. It is conceivable that they will say now, despite what they said in their court filings last week, that he is not totally exonerated, that he still played some role in the circumstances surrounding the death of Isadore Rozeman. What a terrible mistake this would be. Adding insult to injury, it would highlight all that the Louisiana justice system has done wrong in his case.

But there will be plenty of time to fight that fight if it comes. For now, whether he gets the compensation he is entitled to or not, life going forward will not be easy for Ford. Today, there are many more questions than answers about his future. Will he find a job? Will he stay clean and sober? Will he avoid the men, and the women, who will circle around him now hoping for a financial score? On the most basic of levels, will he be able to interact and socialize with his fellow citizens of Louisiana?

Imagine going to sleep in 1983 and waking up this week. Imagine going to sleep every night for 30 years in an 8-foot by 10-foot cell and then suddenly sleeping in your own furnished room. Imagine having to ask permission to do anything, to do everything, and then suddenly being free to make your own choices. Today, Glenn Ford is free. Free to succeed and free to fail. He told reporters that he is not bitter about the life that was taken from him by the state. I hope he means it. His best revenge, indeed, would be to live well. Please let it be so. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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