Wrongfully imprisoned in NC for 44 years, Ronnie Long comes to terms with a different world than the one he knew.
[UPDATE (Dec. 17, 2021, 2:00 pm): Hours after the publication of this two-part series, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Ronnie Long’s pardon, along with the pardons of four other men wrongfully convicted by the state of North Caroina. In addition to Long, their names are: Teddy Lamont Isbell, Sr., Damian Miguel Mills, Kenneth Manzi Kagonyera and Larry Jerome Williams, Jr.
In a statement, Cooper said: “We must continue to work to reform our justice system and acknowledge when people have been wrongly convicted. I have carefully reviewed the facts in each of these cases and, while I cannot give these men back the time they served, I am granting them Pardons of Innocence in the hope that they might be better able to move forward in their lives.”]
[Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Ronnie Long, a North Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned for more than 44 years, as he awaits a pardon from the state of North Carolina. For Part 1, click here. ]
Ronnie Long, the North Carolina man released from prison this summer after spending 44 years there for a crime he didn’t commit, is getting used to the world outside of the prison walls that held him for so many years.
He voted for the first time in his adult life this fall. Sought out the flashy clothing and food he craved for years, the chance to eat fresh shrimp and fish, or even the gourmet burgers from Red Robin, delighting him. His body had to adjust when he first came out, the richness and flavor almost overwhelming after decades living off of bland penitentiary food.
Long’s got a sweet tooth. His freezer at home is stocked with Creamsicles.
He’s also tried Haagen-Dazs for the first time, having heard about it for years while inside prison. And he and his wife, Ashleigh, have had fun wearing coordinating T-shirts, while he re-connects with a family he spent decades away from.
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Long recently beat the Carolina Panthers “Keep Pounding” drum to rally at-home fans before a November game. The Charlotte NFL team selects an honorary drummer for every home game, choosing someone who has “overcome a great trial or adversity that has not only made them strong but also pushes them to make others around them stronger.”
At home, he frequently sits out on the small deck of his Durham house, smoking cigarettes. He relishes sitting out in the sunlight when he chooses, instead of by the rules set out by prison guards.
But this life outside of the prison fences is far from easy.
Long said he’s yet to have a restful night of sleep, waking up frequently. He checks the locks several times a night.
He has no income, and no work experience. Long questions why inmates may receive employment training in prison, but their criminal history will likely keep them from most meaningful jobs when they’re released.
“Who’s going to give me a job?” Long said. “I’m 65 years old.”
When he got out in August, he was perplexed to see so many people on the sides of roads, asking for money to get by. So many people in need. So many people out of work, even more so with the COVID-19 pandemic that has left America reeling.
“I’m seeing people standing out there in the street, on the corner, holding signs and begging for nickels and dimes,” he said, shaking his head. “What kind of government you got?”
He pauses, and then answers his own question.
“The same government I got to go to and try to get a pardon,” Long said, referring to the request he sent to Gov. Roy Cooper asking for a pardon of innocence.
Re-entering society after leaving prison is an enormous challenge for the few like Long, who have had their convictions set aside, as well as those getting out after completing their sentences. In 2018, Americans with criminal records had an unemployment rate of 27%, nearly five times as high as what the general population experienced, according to the pre-pandemic report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
A 2018 study from the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Committee detailed other barriers as well in life, with those with drug-related felonies barred from some federally-funded assistance programs, including food stamps. Federal law also keeps those with certain drug or sex offense convictions out of public housing.
COVID-19, of course, has even further complicated the ability to find and hold down a job, and those coming out of the prison system are facing even more daunting odds. Unemployment skyrocketed after the state initially shut down many businesses this spring, and the economy has struggled to fully recover with a federal plan for help stalled in Congress.
NC had an unemployment rate of 6.3% in November, much higher than the prior year. Those numbers likely understate the reality of those without work, given how many who may have just stopped looking for work with restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment businesses are still struggling.
Long is among those looking for work, but has yet to find anything.
Meanwhile, he is enjoying what he can. He celebrated his first Thanksgiving outside the prison at home with his wife this year. Like many North Carolinians, COVID made it a small gathering.
And he’s looking forward to his first Christmas in 44 years outside of prison. He and Ashleigh took a trip this week to take in holiday light displays and ready themselves for the upcoming holiday.
The Longs recently put candles in the windows of their home. To Ronnie, it’s a way to let light and hope shine in during dark winter nights.
“This is something that I could not even fathom,” Long said. “To be aware of life right now is a miracle and a blessing.”