Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Shock of freedom: Life after prison

3 men from Philly tell what it’s like to return to society after many years behind bars.

Ed Baker, Clarence Safwat Davis and Nick Yarris. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer, Tanya Davis, courtesy of Nick Yarris)
Ed Baker, Clarence Safwat Davis and Nick Yarris. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer, Tanya Davis, courtesy of Nick Yarris)Read more

DURING HIS first moments as a free man in nearly 45 years, Clarence Safwat Davis was thinking about groceries. Specifically, about whether his family needed to pick up bread and milk on the drive home to Tioga from the state correctional institution at Graterford.

"It's something that's part of our normal flow as a family, something we always do and ask about," Davis, 64, said the other day, a few weeks after that January night. "I didn't want to miss that step. I really just wanted to pick up where we had left off."

But his first thought, even before pantry staples, was how surreal it felt to be able to do whatever he wanted for the first time since he was 20 years old. "I hoped that no one would come along and pinch me and wake me up from this dream," he said. "It was unreal, and, in many respects, it still is unreal."

Davis' experience of re-entering society in what he calls a "second childhood" after years of captivity, of struggling to ease back into a world that evolved while he sat frozen in time, is shared by scores of men and women every year.

According to data from Philadelphia's Office of Reintegration Services, about 300,000 former inmates live among the city's 1.5 million residents. The Daily News interviewed three of these "returning citizens," three men from Philadelphia born anew after many years in prison.

Life on 'another planet'

A few days after Davis made that trip into the parking lot in Graterford pushing a cart full of the belongings he had accumulated in prison, someone asked him what was new.

"Everything," he said. "It's like they let me down on another planet."

Philly was a city that, more than 40 years ago, Davis knew like "the back of my hand." Now, on SEPTA buses he has to ask the driver where his stop is.

"I don't mean it's things I'd never seen before, but everything is like a new experience," he said.

Davis is still having "firsts" with his family: first dinner at his nephew's house, first time eating his wife's French toast. Going to a hibachi restaurant was a big kick for him.

When he went to get his driver's license, he was floored that he didn't have to take another road test. It might not have been a bad idea, he joked, given that the last car he drove - a 1963 Chrysler - was light-years away from his current ride, a 2003 Saturn.

But he's grateful for those differences, especially considering the alternative.

Davis shuttled around the state prison system after 1972, when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Arthur Gilliard during a robbery in North Philly. In 2008, he uncovered evidence that the two witnesses used by the state to convict him hadn't disclosed that they were receiving leniency for cooperating. Davis appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ordered a new hearing.

On Jan. 8, a Common Pleas judge accepted Davis' reduced plea of third-degree murder and allowed him out on parole. He was released days later.

He's fortunate, he said, that his loved ones stuck by him. Too often, he saw inmates walk to the phone bank, dial a random number and act out a conversation just to keep up appearances.

"My family always encouraged me to keep my head up and keep my hope up," he said. "That's why I never gave up on myself, or life in general."

They persuaded him to get an education. In 1988, he was one of the first inmates at the state correctional institution at Dallas, Luzerne County, to get a four-year degree from nearby Misericordia University.

After that, Davis helped inmates learn to read. He hopes one day to get a job helping other returning inmates connect with services and support groups.

"I've had so much success, and been fortunate because of my family and through the grace of God to be here today, that I want to help other people reach that level," he said.

Touch-tone amazement

Ed Baker knows the beauty of success.

"Every day, I try to hold on to something good to feel about, and I have so much," he said recently over coffee at the Broad Street Diner, near Ellsworth Street in South Philly.

"I don't even have to talk about it with you, I don't have to share it. It just feels good to know it's there."

Baker, 58, has crammed plenty into the past 15 years: He got a job as a city electrician, bought a house, got a car and built a life.

He had a lot of time to make up for.

In 1974, at age 17, Baker was convicted of the murder and robbery of Steve Gibbons, an elderly neighbor. He maintained his innocence for decades, claiming that he was at a wake during the murder.

Years later, Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit, tracked down Donahue Wise, the state's key witness in Baker's trial. Wise, an admitted drug addict who suffered from schizophrenia, recanted his statement, saying he had sold Baker out in exchange for a lesser sentence of his own. Baker, Wise said, was never involved in the crime.

In a 1997 opinion reversing Baker's conviction, Common Pleas Judge C. Darnell Jones called his ordeal a "miscarriage of justice."

Baker was released from prison in 1999 and moved in with a cousin in South Philly, a part of the city that he barely recognized. Sure, the streets were the same, the houses still stood where they had been. But things were quieter, calmer. Gone was the rampant gang violence that he once dodged constantly: As a teen, he'd been afraid to walk in certain parts of his own neighborhood.

Now, he took great pleasure in walking. Sometimes, he'd skip the bus to work and make the first leg of his commute a little longer. "I just loved the freedom," he said. "Just being able to walk around and see everything, to take it all in."

Little details would amaze him, like touch-tone phones that replaced the bulky rotaries everyone had used when he went away. Or GPS devices, which resembled the radar that James Bond used in "Goldfinger," one of his favorite movies as a kid.

He had the luxury of enjoying these everyday marvels because he left prison with a plan.

"When I was in jail, I had my focus; I knew what I wanted to do," Baker said. "Now, I'm on my own, and I still have that focus."

During his time behind bars, Baker turned a childhood curiosity with the way things work - his parents would scold him for "tearing up" all of his toys - into an electrician's apprenticeship at the state correctional facility at Camp Hill.

When he got out, Baker took the city's electrician test. His score was so high that he was offered a job at Veterans Stadium. Since then, he's moved to the city's Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant and has been promoted three times.

"Jail took a big chunk of my life, don't get that messed up, but I got something out of it and I put it to use to sustain my life," Baker said.

Baker said he's left anger and bitterness - emotions that once ruled his life as a young man wrongfully serving a life sentence - far behind.

"I didn't like being in there, but I can't be bitter, because it's wasted energy," he said of prison. "When you think about it, who are you going to be bitter to?"

A 26-year 'pause'

Nick Yarris, who went through an ordeal like Baker's, also says he has no reason to be bitter.

Yarris, 53, lives in sunny Claremont, Calif., with his third wife and an 8-year-old daughter. They take day trips, ride bikes, go hiking. But life wasn't always like that for the Southwest Philly native.

In 1981, Yarris, then 20, high on methamphetamine, was pulled over by a cop in Chester. A fight broke out, and he was charged with attempted murder of a police officer.

As he sat in prison, he heard about the murder of Linda Mae Craig in Upper Chichester Township, Delaware County. Desperate for freedom, Yarris lied to police, claiming that he had information about the case. He was acquitted in the Chester case - but later convicted of Craig's murder and sentenced to death.

Yarris sat on death row for years, often in solitary confinement.

"I guess I'm always going to be a 20-year-old kid who hit the wall and didn't die, but just stopped there for a little," he said recently. "My growth as a human being in life stopped. It's like I was put on pause."

In July 2003, DNA evidence showed that Yarris didn't kill Craig. He was released a year later.

"Everyone has the image that when the door opens it's the end of a long journey," Yarris said. "The truth is that it's the beginning of an ordeal."

He got headaches from changes in barometric pressure. Natural sunlight irritated his skin. It took him weeks before he could stomach food that wasn't prepared in a commissary.

His body was literally fighting to adapt to freedom.

When he moved back home to Elmwood Avenue in Southwest Philly, his two retired parents having been "handed back a child with no support," he felt like a burden.

He struggled to find work.

"I was given a blank piece of paper and asked to tell the world who I am, and I was judged by my defining trait: being in jail," he said.

After weeks of fruitless searching, he landed a job cleaning shuttle buses at Philadelphia International Airport for $30 a day. It wasn't cutting it.

Two years later, Yarris moved to London, where nobody knew him as "Nick Yarris, former felon." He could be anonymous. There he married his current wife.

Last year, he dropped anchor on the West Coast. These days he spends his time volunteering with the California Innocence Project, which advocates for people who are wrongly convicted, and he lectures about his life story.

"I could sit down, beat my head against the wall and be bitter," he said, "or I can use the one tool that could change my life - belief in myself."