(CNN)Michael Thompson spent more than two decades behind bars for convictions stemming from a marijuana sale. At 4 a.m. on Thursday, he finally walked out of prison to greet his family and the supporters who spent decades fiercely advocating for his release.
Michael Thompson is free after decades in prison. Now he wants to be an advocate for criminal justice reform
"I was lost, after 25 years," he told CNN in an interview Friday. "I was just looking around because I wanted to see whose faces stand out and I'd remember."
Thousands have been pushing for Thompson's release for years -- including advocacy groups, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, as well as the prosecutor and Michigan's attorney general, who in August called the sentencing "unduly harsh." That same month, Thompson tested positive for coronavirus.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in December that she had granted clemency to Thompson and three other people, who all were serving time in prison for nonviolent offenses.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but today is a step in the right direction," Whitmer had said.
Thompson's family is focused on is celebrating his return. They organized a party welcoming him home, ate together, took photographs, and introduced Thompson to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I just like to close my eyes and keep receiving that love," Thompson said. "Because I haven't felt this kind of love in a long time."
When his daughter, Rashawnda Littles, spoke to CNN on Friday morning, she was shoe shopping for her father.
"Words can't explain how I feel right now," she said. "I'm feeling relieved, happy and grateful for everyone who has participated in seeing my dad come home."
Thompson's younger daughter, Princess, was just 3 years old when her father was incarcerated, LIttles said.
"She didn't get to enjoy what I enjoyed growing up with my father," Littles said. "I want her to experience, I want her to be able to know it's OK, it's OK now, it's over."
Thompson, 69, was convicted after a 1994 marijuana sale -- he sold about three pounds to a police informant -- that spurred a search in his home, where officials found 14 weapons. Those weapons included antiques and most were inside a locked gun safe, according to a clemency petition Thompson's attorneys previously provided to CNN.
Thompson's wife testified at trial that most of the guns were hers, the petition states.
But due to prior drug convictions, he was sentenced in 1996 to up to 15 years for the drug charges and 42 to 60 years for firearm possession charges. The unusually long sentence was due to Michigan's habitual offender law, which allows judges to enhance the sentences of those with prior felonies.
"My story is the very story that should never happen within the penal system, nowhere in America," Thompson said.
Thompson's earliest possible release date would have been 2038.
"Here's a man, he killed nobody," he said. "Just think about it, you put a guy in prison for 25 years over three pounds of marijuana."
Kimberly Corral, Thompson's attorney, said his case is evidence that the criminal justice system "isn't worthy of our trust."
"In 25 years, the criminal justice system has not offered a way to correct itself," Corral said. "It's not just an injustice that it happened, it's an injustice every day that our system allowed it to go on in a case that's so obviously unfairly sentenced."
Especially during a pandemic, she said.
"Michael ... was washing his clothes in his toilet, he was hospitalized when he contracted Covid ... he was often quarantined for months on end because someone else would contract Covid, even though he'd already had it, and then they'd use that quarantine as a basis to deny his access to phones," Corral said. "The injustices over the time while we were waiting were ongoing."
Thompson will now be on supervised release at home in Flint, Michigan, his attorney said.
That means he will be subject to interviews with his parole officer and is required to keep the officer updated on information like his location and work. He needs permission to leave the state and could face going back to prison if he violates conditions of his parole.
While his attorneys advocated he receive all his freedoms back, Corral says she's hopeful the cooperation by the different parts of the criminal justice system in Thompson's case will open "a door for a lot more cooperative work in the future, because there are many, many more nonviolent offenders who remain in egregious sentencing schemes that are in need of release."
As for Thompson, he says he's still recovering from the aftermath of his bout with coronavirus.
He says he wants to be a voice for the incarcerated people he was with, and be an advocate for prison reform -- especially regarding nonviolent cases like his that result in decades of punishment.
"Because one minute you hear about it, and then the next week, you don't hear about it. Then six months later, you hear about it and then next month you don't hear about it no more," he said.
"I hope one day somebody's going to say enough is enough and really do something."