Video Duration 08 minutes 22 seconds
From: Al Jazeera Close Up

Finding my family after 44 years in prison | Close Up

After coming to terms with a new and unfamiliar world, Otis Johnson set off to reconnect with his family.

We met Otis Johnson at a New York City shelter for ex-convicts where everyone was trying to get their feet back on the ground.

Otis had just got out of prison after serving a 44-year sentence for the attempted murder of a police officer. The last time he had seen his family was in May 1975.

When we first shared Otis’s story of being reintroduced to the modern world, viewers were amazed by just how unfamiliar everything was to him. iPhones had replaced pay phones, Times Square was a wonder of modern technology, peanut butter and jelly were now sold together in one jar … everything was new or starkly different.

Otis’s story clearly resonated with the more than 15 million people who watched it on YouTube, and we wanted to show them what happened next.

Reconnecting with his family had always been an important dream for Otis, he always said he wanted to do that, but he had not gone to find them yet as he tried to understand this new world he was in.

So we went to Asbury Park in New Jersey with him to try to track down his family. All he had was a small box where he kept tattered old photos of family members. That was his only information.

“The only address I really have is Asbury Park,” Otis told us. So we took the train there, not knowing what we would find.

What we did have to go by was Otis’s memory. Once we arrived at the railway station and began walking around the streets, little things about his old home slowly came back to him: extended family members, friends, shops. He wanted to find his aunt, Dottie Moore and some other family, many of whom he said probably thought he was dead.

Otis’s nervous energy was palpable as we walked down Pine Street, knocking on doors and asking strangers about Dottie Moore.

When we talked to Otis about his relationship with his family, his answers were complicated.

Otis was a devout Muslim who had once been a member of the Fruit of Islam – the enforcement wing of the Nation of Islam, once famously led by Malcolm X – in his younger days. He said he helped “clean up the streets”, removing drug dealers.

“We wasn’t [weren’t] all bad,” he would say.

But Otis said some of his family members did not buy that and he did not know if they would be happy to see him after all these years.

This final story on Otis Johnson is the story of a man on a quest to reunite with remnants of his past.

Filmmakers: Jenna Belhumeur & Elena Boffetta

Editor: Andrew Phillips

Audio: Linus Bergman & John Otimi

Assistant Producer: Ziad Ramley

Executive Producer: Yasir Khan