‘Lifer’ Relishes Unexpected Freedom


JeDonna Young still doesn’t sleep a full night.

In the darkness of her bedroom, she wakes and, with tears welling in her eyes, relives the same moments over and over:

The last walk from her cell. The clank of the prison gates behind her. The first rush of cold air and the warm embrace of her niece, who handed her 20 red roses--one for each year she had spent behind bars.

“I keep thanking God,” she says. “This is such a blessing. I say to myself, ‘It really happened!’ and I’m just so thankful. Then I cry. I think it’s just kicking in, the reality of it all.”


The reality is JeDonna Young is free.

Two decades after she was sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession, she was released--thanks to a change in the law. It was a day she never doubted she would see.

“I never thought how I would get out, what it would be like,” she says, sitting in her mother’s home, where she now lives. “It was just getting out--that was the hardest part.”

Young was the first inmate paroled after state lawmakers amended Michigan’s “650 lifer law,” a throw-the-book-at-’em measure for anyone convicted of delivering, or intending to deliver, 650 grams, about 1.4 pounds, of cocaine or heroin.

She and her boyfriend, who was the target of police, were arrested in 1978 after nearly three pounds of heroin were found in her car. She has always maintained she didn’t know it was there; he swore she didn’t.

Her plight--a 24-year-old mother with no prior criminal record doomed to die in prison--had stirred sympathy over the years. Even an appeals court suggested the law wasn’t intended for her, writing in 1989: “The tiger trap may have sprung upon a sick kitten.”

But it wasn’t until last year that the law changed, making parole a possibility for a handful of prisoners, including Young.

This time, her bid for freedom had a well-known supporter: former Gov. William Milliken. “Had I realized that the law would have been applied to individuals like JeDonna Young, I would never have signed the bill,” he wrote the parole board, saying he had believed the measure would be used for drug kingpins.

The board’s decision was unanimous.

Days later, JeDonna Young walked out, carrying her life’s belongings in a few boxes.

“I’m definitely older and I’m definitely wiser,” says Young, now a grandmother about to turn 45. “I’m not sad. I’m just in awe. Twenty years. I keep saying that to myself. Twenty years. That’s a long time.”

So long that the 7-year-old son she left behind is now the father of a 7-year-old girl. So long that the niece who drove her home was just 4 when she went to prison.

So long that the everyday world has become a strange, confusing, even overwhelming place.

In prison, she constantly wore radio or TV headphones to cut herself off from her surroundings. Now she wanders through grocery stores and malls, gawking at everything, surprised at what is commonplace:

Gourmet chocolate that costs $30 a pound. (“I almost fainted!”)

Supermarkets stocked with ready-made sandwiches and mashed potatoes. (“Everything is so commercial!”)

High-tech gadgets with curious alphabet names: HDTV, DVD. (“I remember when eight-track tapes were new.”)

“Right now,” she says, her eyes widening, “I’m giving off vibes like I just landed from Mars.”

Though two decades have passed, she says she “felt like a little girl on Easter” when she went shopping with her 71-year-old mother, Irene Hardy, the day after her Jan. 29 release.

“My mom bought me some shoes and gave me a purse and a couple of dollars,” she says, laughing.

And she spent some of it indulging in things she had longed for behind bars: fresh vegetables, white chocolate, Southern pecan pie, coffee beans, ice cream.

Her top priority now is to get a master’s degree in social work so she can work with troubled families. She earned a bachelor’s degree in prison and worked as a certified paralegal for legal services, making about $3 a day.

Her hair in a ponytail, her face unlined, JeDonna Young looks like a college student. She is poised and confident--this is a woman, after all, who kept a resume in prison. But she is misty-eyed, too, recalling how she gave some of her meager belongings to other lifers before she left, selecting personal items she thought each could use.

Though she goes out daily with family and friends, there have been no solo ventures yet, except shoveling her mother’s sidewalk.

“I’ve been taking everything very slowly,” she says. “I’m here, but I’m not solid yet with my surroundings.”

When Hardy told her where the bus stops in the neighborhood were, she replied, “Well, I don’t think I could ride a bus now,” her mother recalls. “She’s frightened.”

On a drive near her childhood home, nothing was recognizable--old buildings were down, new ones up. On her first trip down her mother’s block, something was different. But what? Then she realized: It was the towering maple trees, just scrawny saplings when she left.

Young has apologized to her mother and her 27-year-old son, Deloneo, for putting them through an ordeal.

“This law was cruel,” Hardy says. “They didn’t only make my child suffer. My whole family suffered.”

She still marvels at being with her daughter. “I keep looking at you,” she told Young the other day, “and I want someone to pinch me and make sure that this is real.”

Deloneo, who was reared by his grandmother, is giddy too, though for years he was bitter, wondering why murderers were released from prison but his mother was not.

“On the day she got out, it was cloudy,” Deloneo recalls from Kalamazoo, where he runs a sandwich shop. “Then the sun came out of nowhere. I said, ‘My mama’s home! Let me give her a call.’ ”

They spent their first day together watching the Super Bowl. “It was just like you died and had gone to heaven,” says Deloneo, who fell asleep in her lap. “I have a family back together.”

A few weeks ago, they met in Kalamazoo and took a walk.

“It was just lovely . . . that nobody was listening or watching or taping the phone conversation,” Deloneo says.

Young is catching up with Del, as she calls him, poring over childhood snapshots of him in Halloween costumes and on camping trips. But she is determined not to dwell on missed memories or mistakes made.

“A long time ago I . . . promised myself that I’m not going to look behind me,” she says. “I would not sit up and think about why I was there and how I got there. . . . I had to stop asking, ‘Why? Why?’ I said, ‘God, let your will be done. All I ask is that you guide my steps.’ ”

Young’s former boyfriend and co-defendant, James Gulley, died in prison in 1997. He apologized to her and, for years, wrote her. She never responded.

Two decades of paying for one mistake have made JeDonna Young cautious.

“If it doesn’t feel right,” she says, “I don’t do it.”

And now even mundane things thrill her.

“I appreciate being outside, taking a walk, doing the laundry,” she says. “I have a new outlook on life. It’s almost like someone died and has been revived. I take nothing for granted.”


EDITOR’S NOTE--Sharon Cohen is the AP’s Midwest regional reporter, based in Chicago. She first wrote about JeDonna Young’s case in 1997.