COLUMBIA — Josh Kezer tells people he's 38 going on 18 because his normal life ended at 17.
Wrongfully convicted in 1994 for murder, Kezer served nearly 16 years in prison before being exonerated. He was released four and a half years ago. He later won a multi-million dollar settlement in a lawsuit against Scott County and the law enforcement officers who put him behind bars.
On Tuesday, Ryan Ferguson, 29, was freed after spending almost eight years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. He was convicted of murder in 2005 in connection with the slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
Although Kezer said he hasn't had a chance to speak to Ferguson since Tuesday's big events, he met Ferguson in prison and knows him well. And he expects him to deal with social adjustment challenges, just as he has. Thanks to being in prison, they've had the life experience of people far older, but in other ways they are stuck in their teens, struggling to fit in to a society that changed significantly while they were incarcerated.
"The world around us passed us up while we were on the inside," Kezer said. "We assume when we get out that everybody's going to understand. That people are going to be patient. But they don't know how to deal with us."
Understanding technology and the public's reliance on it has been a major challenge for Kezer after being deprived for 16 years of that aspect of 21st century life.
"Imagine getting put into a world where all you knew was relying on your senses. All you knew was how to rely on yourself," he said. "That doesn't always necessarily fit, out here. Sometimes people value your expertise but they don't understand your ignorance."
Cheri Heeren, who has helped offenders re-enter society since 2005, and is the executive director of the Pettis County Community Partnership, said that the challenges people face after being released from prison vary.
"Each person is an individual," she said. "They have individual experiences and needs."
In transitioning to a free life, everyone must find positive resources, Heeren said. She said people often find counselors or organizations like churches most beneficial.
"Everybody has a story and they need to share the story with people they trust," she said.
Heeren said that reestablishing housing, careers, relationships and family structure can be so difficult after being released from prison that many people "continue to serve a life sentence, in effect."
Kezer has personally experienced that the healing process is lifelong, but he attributes this to insurmountable emotional challenges. He said he hopes the community will help Ferguson by treating him like the regular man that he deserved to be, like a "son of Columbia," like the child of Bill and Leslie Ferguson — a real estate agent and a regular churchgoer, respectively.
"That means treating him like the same kid you played basketball with, the same kid who sat next to you in math or history class," he said. "Treat him like the son of the man who sold you your first home, like the son of the woman who prayed for you."
The stain on Ferguson's life is permanent. But time can help. He'll need plenty of it to cope with the overwhelming experience of finally being freed after years in prison.
While the rest of their peers were developing through the regular school system, Kezer and Ferguson developed through "a gladiator school," Kezer said. They were trapped in a violent environment with no women, no children, no technology and a completely different way of life.
Kezer said he knows that he and Ferguson will never have normal lives. But he wants people to realize that time in prison caused them to suffer invisible wounds and resulted in an extraordinary, unique perspective.
"Every day is a celebration," Kezer said. "Every day is beautiful. Every day is free."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.