In his mind, Paul Free is in Baja California, on the west coast of Mexico. He lives in a bathing suit, and spends his days swimming in the 80 degree water and catching 50 lb tuna fish.
His reality, however, is much different. Free has been in prison for distributing marijuana for 24 years, and his daydream will take at least a few more years to come true.
Free was originally sentenced to life in prison, but he was granted clemency by President Obama in December, 2016. However, unlike others who had their sentences commuted, Free didn’t get out immediately. His sentence was reduced to 30 years, so he still has at most 29 more months to serve.
"You do one day," he said during one of two 15 minute phone calls, 30 minutes apart. "You can't think about next week or next year, you just have to make it through this day, that's it. That's the secret."
If I’m doing the math correctly, that’s roughly 870 more "one day at a time"s until he’s free.
"I thought the law was wrong"
Free was born in Southern California, and grew up right next to the border with Mexico. He and his friends would sneak over, go to the bars, smoke some weed, and head back.
As he got older, he realized how cheap the marijuana was in Mexico compared to California, and he decided to bring some across and sell it.
He did it for the money, for the thrill of doing something forbidden, but most importantly, to help people. He says he gave it away to people who needed it for medical reasons, including men dying of AIDS and a sculptor who started using it to slow the loss of her eyesight due to glaucoma.
"I knew it was against the law, but I didn't think it was wrong," he said. "I thought the law was wrong, and I still do."
He had a few run-ins with the DEA during that time, and spent three years in prison for a smaller marijuana-related offense. After that, he decided, it was time to get out.
He stopped trafficking, enrolled in college, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in marine biology. He moved down to Mexico and started a local language school there, El Colegio de Idiomas, or the School of Languages.
One day, when he was crossing the border, he was stopped, arrested, and he’s been in prison ever since.
"The DEA had reason to hate me," he said, trying to explain how he ended up caught in a conspiracy he says he had nothing to do with. "I was young, in my 20s, I did some crazy things, I stole their boats and stuff."
He says that even though he had proof that he wasn’t involved, they weren’t hearing it. They wanted him locked up, and that’s what happened.
“It doesn’t make any sense”
Free, who is now 67, spent as much of his prison sentence as possible keeping to himself, and helping others when he was able to.
For a long time, he worked on other prisoners’ appeals cases, trying to reduce or appeal their sentences. He managed to take a total of over 100 years of time off the people he worked with, and that gave him a way to stay sane in the system.
But now that his own sentence has been commuted and he’s on his way out, he’s just passing the time, and wondering how he is still locked up for something that is legal, both medically and recreationally, in his home state.
"It feels like shit, to be honest with you," he said. "I mean, it doesn't make any sense."
He is so disillusioned with the state of affairs that he has absolutely no intention of staying in the United States once he is released.
"The lower part of Mexico, Baja California, is really beautiful," he said. "So that's where I want to go."
"I just want go get away from here. It scares me here."