On Wednesday morning, Lizette Ledezma got a phone call that she's been dreaming about for the last 24 years.
Her mom Josephine, who's been in prison since 1992 serving a life sentence for a drug conviction, called to tell her that she had received a clemency from President Obama. She was one of 214 inmates around the country who this week learned they'd be getting to go home.
"She started crying, we were yelling on the phone together, screaming for joy, just overwhelmed," Lizette, 36, told me. "It was so surreal. Your emotions are going 100 miles per minute, and it’s like you’re in shock."
Like many other prisoners, Ledezma, who's now 58, received her life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug crime. She was convicted of participating in a conspiracy to sell cocaine, even though she did little more than deliver money for her brother, a drug dealer (who also served time in prison).
Now, she expects to be transferred to a halfway house near her family in southern California sometime in the next few weeks. After staying there for a few months, she'll be on home confinement until her supervised release ends on August 3, 2017.
In a grainy phone call from prison, Ledezma told me that she hadn’t given up hope of being released for even a single day of her 24 years, and had prayed for freedom every morning.
“God bless President Obama for having so much compassion for us who didn’t have a chance,” she said.
Lizette was just 11 years old when her mom was arrested, leaving her and her two siblings to be raised by a single dad. She said her life felt like a rug had been pulled out from underneath. "We had to grow up pretty quick," she said. "Just knowing that when you get home from school, your mom’s going to be there, that's like a security blanket. The moment when she went to prison, it’s like all that was gone."
Whatever little money Ledezma got from her prison job she used to pay for phone calls home, to her kids and grandkids. Meanwhile, over the course of more than two decades, she didn't get a single infraction in prison, she wrote in her petition.
"That is not easy, because you get written up for having your toothbrush in the wrong place," said Amy Povah, who served time with Ledezma at FC Dublin prison in California before she got her own clemency in 2000. She remembered spending days together in the prison law library, the two women typing away on their appeals on typewriters.
"She's the opposite of what people want to believe prisoners are like—she has a pure soul," Povah said.
Ledezma submitted her clemency petition to Obama earlier this year, after being turned down by Clemency Project 2014, a program that gives federal inmates pro bono lawyers to help prepare their petitions. Her successful petition was written by another former inmate and clemency recipient, Jason Hernandez (who wrote an op-ed for Fusion in January about how Obama hadn't given a clemency to a single Latina inmate).
Once the petition was submitted, Lizette watched as Obama announced a new batch of clemency recipients every couple months. Each time a new group of names was released, she would scan through the list, her heart beating quickly, and find her mom wasn't on it. "It’d be like you’re on pins and needles, just waiting," she said. "As the months go, it gets harder because you know that his time as president is coming closer to an end."
Once Ledezma gets out of prison, she isn't quite sure what her new life will be like. “My kids tell me, ‘Mom, the world is completely changed, you’re not going to be able to recognize anything,’” she said. “I’m not scared at all, though, it’s just an adjustment.”
She's looking forward to spending time with her nine grandchildren, who she's never met outside of prison, sharing little moments like cooking together.
Even while she's joyful and has been getting congratulated by inmates and prison guards left and right for the past two days, Ledezma said her clemency was bittersweet. “I’m so excited and so happy I’m going home, but I’m sad because I’m leaving behind people who I’ve known for many years, who are like sisters to me. They have to stay here.”
She plans to keep on praying for them every morning.
When her mom walks out of prison for the first time, "I’m probably going to crying like a big baby," Lizette said. "I’ll probably just hug her as tight as I can, and realize this is real—that you’re outside, you’re outside those gates."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.