It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.

What the hell is a Scalawag?

What is freedom? That was the question I had when I started this project, taking portraits of 12 people who were once sentenced to life in prison and then freed or exonerated.

An exonerated person is one whose conviction for a crime is thrown out. That happens because of evidence of innocence that the judge or jury didn't know about when the person was convicted. The person is then either not re-prosecuted or is acquitted at a re-trial, according to the Innocence Project New Orleans, the organization that represented each of these men in the state court of law (and connected me with the men you'll read from below). 

Since 2001, the Innocence Project New Orleans has freed or exonerated 39 people who served more than 922 combined years in prison between Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, time lost to false convictions has exceeded 25,000 years in this country. 

Those stolen years are due to a variety of factors: mistaken witness identities, which account for 28 percent of those wrongfully convicted; false confession or admissions; prosecutorial misconduct like Brady Violations, when the state withholds evidence from the defense; and false forensic evidence. 

But what's actually stolen can't be measured. Their friends gathered for barbecues and birthday parties. There were first steps for babies. There were weddings and funerals. Meanwhile, on the inside, these men sought some semblance of life. Even if they're still making sense of what was lost, each of them now say they are glad to be on the outside, despite all they missed over the years.

Since their release, Robert Jones and Jerome Morgan have become dedicated activists in New Orleans as the founders of Free-Dem Foundations, a nonprofit organization advocating for "disregarded" youth. One of their mentees is headed to Harvard University in the fall. Both men are pillars of the community. They spent a combined 43 years in prison for murders they did not commit. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Jimmie Bass has a smile that radiates joy. He served 18 years and 21 days for murder after a mistaken eyewitness identification. These men have found freedom in ways those of us who haven't experienced prison, whose lives haven't been irreparably harmed by an unjust legal system, might never understand. 

I admittedly didn't know much about the legal system when I began what was supposed to be portrait work as a photojournalist. The photographs I take are a documentation of the encounter between the subject and myself. I spend time getting to know the people I capture, and I hope they feel as if they've gotten to know me, too. In relationship, and in the work itself, this is an effort to dispel the myths of New Orleans—and surrounding areas—by focusing on its people. And I hope to give everyday people a platform and connection to a larger audience.

So, I asked: "What does your freedom mean to you?" 

These are their replies.

All photos by Jason Kerzinski. These personal letters have not been edited. Hover over or tap the scanned letters to reveal and read the full text.


Jerome Morgan

20 years in Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary

When I had 2nd degree murder charges dismissed in May of 2016, after a 22 yr. long fight to correct my wrongful conviction and sentence of life without parole in 1994, I faced the obvious question of "Now that I was so-called free, what does that mean to me?" I was definitely disappointed to come to grips with the fact that I still was not FREE. To me, I've come to realize that most of our freedoms are determined by "capital status" here in America. If Freedom was respected as such, there would be no need, desire or force to enslave, indoctrinate or incarcerate any human being, plant or animal. Instead, every living being would be treated with the utmost value due to there individual purpose, and able to live freely unto infinite potential. There would be more room for partnership and less room for competition. However, since freedom has been disguised as a material wealth, it can be dictated by the mass production of goods and services based on supply and demand, in a white/western male market, better known as a market economy.

It should rather be through what is called "central planning," an economy in which production, investment, prices and incomes are determined centrally by a community government. We currently pay for our freedoms by buying into capitalism. Which is something my soul won't allow me to do. Throughout my growing consciousness, I've been able to identify with my urge to organize and mobilize a group of folks who also possess a goal for freedom and seek to invest in what I have termed as "Equal Economics." Therefore, to compliment this end goal, I co-founded a non-profit youth org with another formerly wrongly convicted brother, and named it Free-Dem Foundations to speak the message that none of us are free if we're not all free. Free from the greed of the white/western male and everyone who believes in his system of inequality and oppression. Because my measure of freedom could never amount up to the many roles of inferiority, subordination or involuntary servitude made so very readily to the weak and weary who are desperate for a place to call home.


Robert Jones

23 years, 7 months and 3 days in Angola 

First of all, freedom is the most powerful word on the planet in my humble opinion. Simply because, freedom comes without restraints, boundaries or limitations. Growing up in America as a black man gives me a huge appreciation for freedom, at the same time, it also discourage me because I am constantly reminded daily that freedom is only a word to black people.

As an exoneree of serving more than 23 years in prison for crimes I did not commit. Freedom was taken from me twice. Once, just being born black in America under a systemic racist society. Second, being accused, shamed and labeled as a criminal for crimes you did not commit. Now that I am free after fighting like hell for my freedom that belongs to me as a birth right. I have come to the realization that I am free, only to do what I choose to do now, but I don't have true freedom until we as people are all free. In conclusion, I absolutely love being free, but being free is not the same as freedom.


Don Degruy

15 years and 2 months in Angola

Freedom,

I wish you were a lady, were I could hold you in my arms, you look so good, sunshine from you is truly beautiful. I love the way you think and look to bring a better day. But for the most part freedom takes alot of responsibilities are real.

Thank you again for loving me.


Elvis Brooks

42 years, 2 months, and 27 days in Angola

With my freedom, I am able to breathe new breaths, and I'm able to see and experience new things. My freedom has given me the realization that I'm now in a much better place in life, mind and spirit. As a free man, I can come and go without feeling restricted. As a free man, I can eat, lay or sit, without feeling restricted. As a free man, I can reach for my cell phone, I can reach for my TV remote, or I can simply have a snack of my choice. In essence, as a free man I now have choices that I didn't have before. With my freedom, I'm able to enhance my capabilities and find new strengths. I'm also able to reach new heights. My freedom mean all of the above and so much more, to me!!!


Jimmie Bass

18 years and 23 days in Parchman Farm, Mississippi State Penitentiary

Freedom to me means free to have a choice. When incarcerated your choices are seated in your mind and has no door way out. Your choices run around your mind seeking a way out. There's no way out.
Your choices has to be overcome by positive mind input, reading, exercising, and shaping the thought pattern to deal with holding the mind together from shutting down. If not, you will become.

(Institutionalize)
Excepting being in bondage.
Giving up on even thoughts of freedom.
Loving and excepting the prison
Creative invironment.

Taken Choices
Free to think by choice.
Free to act on a thought.
Free to eat by choice.
Free to go by choice.
Free to move by choice.
Free to think about someone and contact.
Free to contact by thought.
Free to enjoy the night.
Free to enjoy different sounds.
Free to see beautiful colors.
Free to meet a mate.
Free to live a normal human life.
Freedom means to me to be able to have all choices back. And live a normal human life.

Thanks for allowing me to share.


George Toca

30 years, 9 months, and 3 days in Angola

I am George Toca. I was arrested and wrongfully convicted of killing my best friend Eric during a botch robbery attempt. As a result, I lost 31 years of my life for a crime I didn't commit to make matters worse, I was forced to go back to court and lie and confess to this crime to get out of prison. It was one of the worst days of my life. I'm out of prison but not free so my nightmare persist and I can't express what my freedom means to me because I'm still not free.


Archie Williams

36 years in Angola

Freedom means the same thing it meant to me when I was in prison. The only freedom I have ever known has been in God. I am beyond grateful to have been exonerated and released. I can't put that type of gratitude into words. But to be honest, I will never be truly free until the other innocent people in prison are freed as well. Knowing what it means to be in prison when you're innocent, and knowing that others are suffering through that, prevents me from being truly free. When I think of them it takes me back to that place. It will always be my mission to shine a light on their stories.


John Floyd

36 years in Angola

Freedom to make my own choices about the things that I do is very important, because it gives my life meaning and purpose. Being able to attend church, traveling and visiting with family and friends and not having to be on a time restriction has been such a wonderful blessing in life. Being away from my family for all of those years has shown me just how much they each mean to me, and being able to talk to them and visit with them is a great freedom that I will never take for granted. I lost several of my family members while I was in prison, so I value the time that I have with family. One thing that I have learned is that every single day that I wake up is a blessing from God, and to never take one thing in life for granted. None of us are promised to see tomorrow, so I try to take each day as a gift from God. I have learned to enjoy the simple things in life that give me purpose and meaning. I start my day by reflecting on God, and all of the things that I have to be grateful for. Waking up in time to see the sunrise of a new day, enjoying my morning coffee while listening to the birds singing, talking with and visiting with family and friends, and going for walks around the lake with my dog, Maggie. These simple things in life that I used to take for granted are now the most important things in life to me.


Larry Delmore

16 years in Angola

After serving 16 years for a crime that we did not commit, being free meant the world to me and my family. For example, when I'm feeling needed, I am able to be helpful to others mainly our youth. I love helping to steer them on the right path. It's most rewarding when a youth or adult comes to me for advice and my opinion on such things as drugs, crime, or even dealing with anxiety and depression.

However, at my lowest is when my anxiety/ depression gets the best of me. During this time, I'm most reminded of my past thinking about the torture and pain I endured through my unjust incarceration. Still, no apology or no proper compensation. After being put through pure hell!

I thought freedom would be more enjoyable. It runs through my mind, I obey God first and the law second. I try to establish self respect / honor from others. But, it's so hard at times dealing with anxiety and depression.

So, please pray for me because these bad days seem to be neverending until I get a call or visit from one of my grandkids. Being a proud paw paw helps to overweigh the pain. In the end, I waited 16 years for my freedom but still feel imprisoned at times. Leaves me wondering, just what is freedom for me?


Anthony Johnson

24 years in Angola

My freedom meant to me one less innocent man in prison. I said that because I met a lot of innocent prisoners while Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) work on our cases. Some exonerees got out before me and some after I got out. IPNO and exonerees have this family bond.

My freedom mean I got a lot to be thankful for. I thank God for my freedom. Thank IPNO for their dedication and getting me and others exonerated.

My freedom mean being back with my family. I can go and come as I want. I can eat what I want and where I want to. 

My freedom show people that I'm a innocent man of the crime I was charge with. I won't die in prison as a innocent man.


Glenn Davis

14 years, 8 months, and 14 days in Angola

It's priceless yet pricey to envelope this thing we call freedom. My freedom means everything to me: the freedom to eat, the freedom to sleep and roam at any time you want to, but yet it's preciousness can easily be stripped away by an unjust system that has taken away the freedom of so many others including myself. It's useless to put so much emphasis on being free, but it's more than worth it to protect your freedom to the best of your ability from being stripped away in a flash… and it can easily be stripped away for nothing.


Earl Truvia

27 years, 7 months, and 10 days in Angola

To live a normal life with fresh challenges that I never had the opportunity to explore options and crossover moments of fundamental experiences and living. Having the choice to decide what sort of food to eat, clothes to wear, what time to go to bed and what time to get up in the morning. Being at liberty to having a sense of privacy in my own bedroom, showering, and being able to feel the comfort of not being watched over by a prison guard or another fellow prisoner. Having the ability to seek new directions of career opportunities in the workforce of a modern world, opposed to having to wake up to a work call, picking cotton, using a ditch blank blade for cutting high grassy areas going down a long trail until completed, hearing the prison guard on a horse with a shotgun hollering… (swing) meaning move to another work site of grass to cut, away from the prison count procedures at the sound of a whistle, a programmatical method use to round everybody up like a bunch of cattle's for a head count, making sure all the slaves were there and none tried to escape. Being able to go here and there and meeting new people from all walks of life. Most importantly, waking up inside a welcoming home of Love, Peace, Joy, laughter, Kindness, and inspirational energy of God's continues Grace, Protection and Mercy. Making the best decisions in life and making them right to continue enjoying that part of re-entry of being free from the above mentioning and the unmentioning. Lastly, as ever, giving God all the Praise and Honor for making my freedom reality after the horrific experiences in the local jail, and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to maintain good health and Spirit. Reuniting with my Family, Friends, and childhood sweetheart whom I Married.


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Jason Kerzinski

Jason Kerzinski is a New Orleans-based photojournalist and street portrait photographer. He's published work in Capital & Main, The Progressive, as well as Antigravity Magazine.