On Zerious Meadows’s last day in prison, he woke up at 4 a.m., as usual, because his cell mate works in the kitchen and leaves early to prepare breakfast. He listened to the radio — a station that plays R&B and rap from “the time when it had meaning” — and then went about distributing the last of the items he’d accumulated in 47 years behind bars.
Meadows, 63, gave his television to an 18-year-old who had just arrived at Macomb Correctional Facility, in New Haven, Michigan, and his radio to one of the older inmates. Someone asked why he didn’t sell the radio — it’s a large, solid one, unlike the ones the prison sells now, and he could have gotten as much as $200. Meadows had no use now for what passes as prison currency: “I didn’t want to be paid in potato chips or whatever other commissary items,” he said.
He gave away his dark blue prison uniforms, jackets, sweatshirts, and T-shirts, but kept the underwear he’d recently purchased, to wear under the clothes his sister Pamela had bought him.
And then he waited.
When I met with Meadows on the night of November 13, just hours before his scheduled release, he seemed at once calm and nervous. He would not look at me directly, beyond a passing glance, and instead often looked at his impeccably shined black shoes. He hadn’t eaten all day, and his head hurt — “probably from the stress,” he said. He listed all the things he planned to do the next day — see his family, including the many nieces, nephews, and their children, some of whom he had never met. His mother was going to cook one of his favorite things — a turkey leg — and he just wanted to have some time alone with her. But he didn’t want to dream too hard, in case it didn’t happen, because this was the second time he’d been promised his freedom.
“When I go home, I just want to sit on the floor up against the couch next to my mother,” he said. “But I won’t believe it’s happening until I walk out those doors.”
Meadows was never supposed to get out of prison. In 1971, he was sentenced to life without parole, charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail into a house on Lemay Street, about a mile west of the Detroit River, and setting it on fire. Two children died in the fire, 12-year-old Ruth Taylor and her 4-year-old sister, Regina. Meadows was just 16 when he was arrested and 17 when he was sentenced.
The United States is the only country that sentences minors to life in prison without parole.
The United States in the only country that sentences minors to life in prison without parole. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. In January 2016, the Supreme Court tackled the case of retroactivity, ruling in favor of Henry Montgomery, who was sentenced to life for a crime he committed in 1963, when he was 17, and allowing the approximately 1,500 people who were sentenced before 2012 a chance at release.
Michigan has the second-highest number of juvenile lifers in the country. There were about 360 people eligible for re-sentencing in January 2016 and so far, 35 have been released.
Though they’re given classes — taught to use a debit card and a cellphone; write a resume, fill out paperwork to get birth certificates, and Social Security cards — for those like Meadows who have spent decades in prison, life on the outside is often daunting.
Meadows is the second of nine children. The family is tight-knit — Meadows’s sister Pamela Davenport said their father used to jokingly ask their mother where all these children had come from and said there were so many of them that they didn’t need any friends, because they had each other. Their father, Zerious Sr., worked at the Detroit Public Dock & Terminal and in the city sanitation department; the mother, Ann, was a stay-at-home mom.
Davenport was 9 when Meadows was sentenced. Her parents let all eight children skip school to be in court that day, October 6, 1971 — their wedding anniversary — and to this day, the image that is stuck in her mind is of her father falling to his knees after the judge said that Meadows would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“He just kept saying, ‘No, not my son!’ Everybody was crying. We was all trying to hold on to [my father],” Davenport, now 55, said. “It was the first time I saw my father cry.”
Meadows told me he was calm as he was led out of the courtroom. He has always maintained his innocence. He had an alibi and says the people who testified against him lied. He assumed they would eventually tell the truth, and he’d be released.
“It was like in a daze, but it was like something said, just don’t worry,” Meadows told me. “I don’t know if it was because of my age or what because, I hate to admit this, but at the time I didn’t think grown-ups lied.”
A year later, it seemed Meadows would get his chance at being released, when his case was overturned due to an issue with one of the witnesses. Meadows was re-tried and offered a plea deal, which he refused, and was again sentenced to life without parole.
“They’re saying that I killed two people when I didn’t,” he said. “I’d rather die saying I wasn’t guilty of this thing, than admit it just to get out.”
Meadows spent his first 10 years at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, which was then mainly for men under 21. He played sports, studied welding, worked on car and boat motors, and in the machine shop. He also got his GED and is four credits short of an associate’s degree in business accounting. He says his credits didn’t transfer over when he moved from one prison to another in the 1980s, and he just gave up.
“My life story,” Meadows said. “I’m kind of used to disappointments.”
In 47 years behind bars, Meadows has only received four tickets for misconduct, and he got them early on, mainly for fighting. The older men looked out for him and kept him from getting in any trouble beyond that. “I was real wild and just incorrigible to a sense. If you said something I would, like, say something smart, and instead of them hurting me, they’d talk to me.”
Meadows was also sustained by family visits. He has been in six different prisons, but even when he was a three- to four-hour drive from home, they still made the trip. Meadows has a stack of over 200 Polaroids documenting these family gatherings, many from the 80s, when he could wear his own clothes. He’s decked out in Adidas T-shirts and acid-wash jeans, posing with family and friends in front of backdrops of palm trees and tropical sunsets. The photos span decades, chronicling the changes in his siblings’ lives on the outside, with later pictures including what Meadows would never have — spouses, and then children.
While the visits boosted Meadows, he often became depressed watching his family leave, to the point where sometimes he would tell them he did not want to see them at all. “It’s just like you’re lashing out at somebody that cares for you because you ain’t got nothing else,” he said.
The family would come anyway. Meadows’s father died of cancer in November 1992, and Meadows’s siblings recount how in the hours before his death, he had made them promise to continue visiting their brother. Meadows’s family had not told Meadows his father was ill, though he’d asked on several occasions why his father hadn’t come to visit. He knew something was wrong when his mother, sister, and niece arrived at the prison. “They just had that look on their faces and you could just … I knew it wasn’t a good thing because when they told me to go in the room I just, you knew something wasn’t right.”
While his father’s death was painful, Meadows said simply: “It’s something I dealt with.”
Meadows also lost a brother, Kenneth, who was murdered in November 1979. Meadows said that even then, so much had gone wrong in his life that he was not surprised. A lot of other men were also losing brothers and other relatives on the streets. “I grieved, I got mad, I asked, ‘Why him?’ he said. “But I also had the attitude where I accepted that certain stuff just happened.”
Still, Meadows felt frustrated when his family had health and other issues — Davenport had an aneurism, and his mother has had a number of strokes — and he couldn’t help.
Over the years, Meadows created a routine to keep his mind occupied and away from painful thoughts, and developed a kind of stoicism. Though there were moments he hoped he’d go to bed and not wake up, he found ways to exist and he always, though there was no tangible reason for hope, believed that one day he would be released.
His family is religious, but it isn’t faith that gave Meadows hope. He wonders if there is a God, why that God would have allowed him to spend a lifetime behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
He started running in 2005 — he describes it as a moving meditation — and generally stuck to himself, reading, watching his television, and listening to the radio.
As a Level II prisoner, Meadows had certain privileges — an open cell block, where he could come and go as he pleased, and a job as a porter, where he earned about $60 a month. He was told he could move to Level I, but refused, because it is where people who are soon to be released are housed, and he said he did not think he could handle people leaving while he had to remain behind.
But then, in late 2015, Meadows heard about the Montgomery case, and the possibility of being re-sentenced. He had a panic attack. He was scared of being free, because he’d seen several other men who had served decades wither once they were released, unable to handle the sharp mental shift from prison. Meadows told me at the time: “It’s just like when you read about a person who’d been in prison, got out, and just snapped, you know, killed the dog, the cat. I understand and I hope that don’t happen to me, but people got to realize when you’re locked up, sometimes you suppress so much stuff.”
By June 2016, when Meadows went before the parole board, he’d become more comfortable with the idea of being released. His family would support him, as they always had. He would live with Davenport and she would help him find work.
Unbeknownst to Meadows and his family, the county prosecutor had filed an emergency motion arguing that under the Michigan statute for re-sentencing, Meadows should have been given a sentence with a maximum of 60 years. This does not mean that those re-sentenced have to serve 60 years, simply that the sentence given must read “25-60 years.”
Meadows found out at about 8:30 that night, when no one had come to get him, that something had gone wrong. When his lawyer, Melvin Houston, explained that he was not going to be released and that though he was going to appeal, there was no telling what would happen, Meadows was discouraged but somewhat resigned.
“My life story,” Meadows said. “I’m kind of used to disappointments.”
Houston argued that the prosecutor was trying to keep Meadows incarcerated as long as possible, in keeping with what was happening with other cases. In Michigan, county prosecutors have pushed to upload the life sentences in about 65 percent of cases. In Oakland County, while prosecutor Jessica Cooper filed 44 cases for re-sentencing in July, she said her office would ask for a stay in every single case to maintain the life sentences. This, in essence, goes against the Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery, because the end result is that very few people are actually being given a chance at release.
The decision to keep Meadows behind bars was confusing and demoralizing for his family. Davenport, who had often been the first one in the car when her father had driven to see Meadows, said she continued to visit, but it suddenly felt more tedious. “I just hated going up there, but I had to,” she said. “I got tired of leaving him there. I just wanted to take him with me.”
Davenport got that chance about a year later. Meadows was sent to the parole board again in August 2017. He maintained his innocence — something he worried would mean he’d be kept behind bars, because parole boards generally want to hear an admission of guilt and statement of remorse — and was given a release date.
At around 10 on the morning of November 14, Meadows walked out of the Macomb Correctional Facility with his sister Regina and her daughter Ebony, along with Davenport, her husband, Dee Wayne, and her grandson. They stopped at a Starbucks on their way to the parole office and ran into another sister, Cynthia, who just happened to be driving along the same road. They spent about two hours at the parole office, waiting to see his officer, and in that time Meadows was greeted by other men he’d met over almost five decades in prison.
Meadows’s parole officer explained the conditions of release — he has to report to the office twice a month, can only sleep at his sisters’ and mother’s house, and needs to pay a $600 monitoring fee. Then the family drove to Davenport’s house.
Relatives trickled in throughout the afternoon. While most congregated in the dining room, looking at Meadows’s collection of photographs, laughing at their younger selves, Meadows often sat in the living room, where it was quieter. His 17-year-old great nephew explained the difference between Androids and iPhones — “iPhones are better, because they have this thing called FaceTime,” he explained, and Meadows’s months-old great-niece sat beside him in her car seat, and delighted in playing with his nose.
Meadows’s mother had a doctor’s appointment and was one of the last to arrive. The two embraced and then sat on the sofa in a state of disbelief. Ann Meadows said there really weren’t words to describe how she was feeling. “This is like a dream. It was a prayer answered,” she said.
In the weeks since his release, he has struggled with some of the things most take for granted — using a cellphone and a debit card.
While Meadows did not say anything that night, he later told me it was overwhelming being around so many people: “I wanted to be by myself. All of a sudden, it felt like I was being squeezed in a box.”
He still often retreats to his bedroom in the basement of Davenport’s house, where he now lives. In the weeks since his release, he has struggled with some of the things most take for granted — using a cellphone and a debit card. He has also enjoyed the mundane — raking leaves and having neighbors wave as they drive by — and has been looking for work. He will do just about anything, preferably something using his hands, because that’s all he feels he knows how to do.
“I want to see if I can support myself. I’m so used to people doing for me,” he said.
When I interviewed Meadows when he was still incarcerated, he could not recount any particularly traumatic moments he’d had in prison. Now, he said, memories of other men being murdered and raped, and female corrections officers being physically and otherwise abused by male officers have all come flooding back.
“I see how veterans come back from war, they be having them flashbacks. That’s what happened to me,” Meadows said. “I guess when I was in, my body put me in survival mode.”
Each day, he tries to stay out of his room a little longer. He spends most days with his siblings and finally got to sit on the floor beside his mother as he’d dreamed, explaining that when he was little, he liked to sit on the floor and play with his mother’s toes.
While he was in prison, Meadows would not talk much about what he’d lost in the decades behind bars — the chance to have a career, marry, have children and grandchildren. Now, all the desires he’d curbed have flooded his mind so fast, he doesn’t quite know where to start.
“I lost my teens, 20s, 30s … There’s no saying what I could have accomplished,” he said. “I got locked up so long, and now it’s like I’m starting all over from 16.”
Lisa Armstrong is a Fund for Investigative Journalism/Schuster Institute Social Justice Investigative Reporting Fellow.