Barry Jones rarely dared to imagine his release from death row. Sometimes, when he was feeling low, his paralegal, whom he called Ms. Jennifer, tried to buoy his spirits by promising that one day his legal team would drive up in the “habeas van” to the desert prison in Florence, Arizona, honking and celebrating, ready to take him home. It was never going to be like that, of course. But neither could they have predicted where Jones would find himself on June 15, in his first moments of freedom after 29 years: alone at a Del Taco near the bus station, being told he could not use the phone.
The previous 24 hours had gone mostly according to plan. He’d spent Wednesday giving away most of his things to friends and neighbors on death row. The next morning, around 4:30 a.m., Jones ate some instant oatmeal for breakfast and prepared to leave his cell for the last time. He boarded a van for the ride down to Tucson, the sprawling prison complex fading from view behind him. By 9:30 he’d arrived at Pima County Superior Court, where a judge would sanction his release at a hearing later that morning. Jones had hoped to walk out there and then. Instead, he was driven around by officers with the Arizona Department of Corrections who didn’t seem to know what to do with him. They eventually arrived at a probation office, where he was finally uncuffed and given a change of clothes. Then they dumped him at the Greyhound station downtown.
With no money, no cellphone, and no experience navigating the city in decades, Jones looked for a pay phone to make a collect call but found none. “Even at the bus station — this is a bus station,” he later said with disbelief. “Wow.” So he started walking toward the one downtown address he knew: the office of the Arizona Federal Public Defender.
In a blue T-shirt, dark jeans, and white sneakers, Jones made his way west. He carried a trash bag with a few belongings and an envelope with his release documents inside. It was a typically bright, hot Arizona day. But he was struck by how green Tucson looked compared to Florence, where there was nothing but brown desert as far as the eye could see. “You know, this ain’t so bad,” he thought. If he didn’t find anyone at the office, he could try to find his son’s house. He could even sleep under a bridge if he had to. What mattered was that he was no longer in prison. “I can do whatever I want.”