Hours before a federal jury was to decide his fate on a crack cocaine charge, Edward Douglas saw five of his nine children off to school outside Chicago. He gave one money for a field trip and told them all he loved them.
“I’ll see you later,” Douglas said.
He made that promise on Feb. 27, 2003, the day the jury convicted him. He repeated the promise four months later after he was sentenced to life in prison, even though it seemed futile.
Earlier this month, after nearly 16 years behind bars, he finally fulfilled it.
On Jan. 10, a federal judge ordered Douglas released from prison. He’s one of the first inmates freed under a new federal law that eases drug sentences for federal inmates, including many, like Douglas, serving decades for selling small amounts of crack.
His two sisters picked him up at the federal penitentiary in Pekin, Illinois, that afternoon, after dark. He stepped through the prison doors in a shirt, sweatpants and gym shoes. His sisters saw him from their car and began running to him. He hurried them back. “We can do all the hugging and kissing in the car,” he told them. “Let’s get off this property.”
They drove three hours to his mother’s home on Chicago’s South Side, stopping once, for chicken at Popeyes. After receiving word, several of his children, including some he’d last seen on the morning he was convicted, drove to the house together. They burst inside and swarmed him.
“They all came in at the same time, kids, grandkids, and they couldn’t all hug me at the same time so they took their time, crying,” Douglas, 55, recalled. “It was an experience I will take to my grave.”
Douglas is leading the way for thousands of federal inmates who in the coming weeks and months are expected to petition for early release under the landmark law, called the First Step Act.
The measure, passed in December, is the result of a rare bipartisan effort by Congress to change the federal government’s harsh drug sentencing statutes. It eases mandatory-minimum prison sentences for drug offenders and gives well-behaved inmates incentives to earn “good time” credits toward early release. It also makes retroactive a 2010 law that decreased penalties for crack.
That provision makes about 2,660 federal inmates who were sentenced for crack-related crimes before 2010 eligible for early release, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency. A small segment, perhaps a few dozen, are like Douglas, given life terms for selling small amounts of crack because they fell under the federal “three strikes” law for repeat offenders.
Douglas, then a maintenance worker for the Chicago Transit Authority, was arrested in 2001 for selling 140 grams of crack to a federal informant in central Illinois. He had never been to prison, but he did have two prior convictions for possessing small amounts of drugs. When Douglas refused to plead guilty to the crack charge, prosecutors sought a life sentence under the “three strikes” statute. Believing he would beat the charge, Douglas went to trial and was convicted.
For as long as he could, Douglas kept the full truth of his punishment from his children. He never revealed his life sentence, instead telling them he’d be home soon, while leaving the timeline vague. They didn’t press him. Eventually, the kids moved with family members from Chicago to Mississippi, keeping in touch in phone calls, birthday notes, Christmas cards. He ended them all by saying he’d see them later.
“I couldn’t do no life sentence,” he recalled thinking. “I had kids, a mother. I didn’t know how long I was going to be in there, but I knew I couldn’t do life.”
Then he told himself: “I need to go to the library to figure out my way out of here.”
Douglas filed multiple appeals and applied for clemency from President Barack Obama, failing each time. He had few options left when MiAngel Cody, a founder of The Decarceration Collective, a Chicago-based legal firm that works to undo America’s reliance on mass imprisonment, came across his file in 2017. Cody was reading stacks of court cases looking for compelling stories and was taken by the seeming unfairness of Douglas’s sentence.
Cody was also drawn to the letters she found from his mother, Vera Douglas, begging in vain for the judge to reconsider the sentence and set her son free.
“I know there is some bad in all of us but your Honor, there is not enough bad for my son to do life in prison,” she wrote in 2006.
Vera Douglas served as her son’s steadiest connection to his life before prison. They rarely went more than a couple of days without speaking by phone, and she made the three-hour drive from Chicago to Pekin several times a year until health problems forced her to stop in 2017.
After Cody found Edward Douglas’ case, she called Vera, who put her in touch with her son. Cody offered to represent him for free.
The Decarceration Collective also put his story on its website as part of a larger campaign to advocate for the release of people serving life sentences in federal prison. As the First Step Act gained momentum in Congress in 2018, the lawyers hoped Douglas’ story would be noticed by lawmakers considering whether to support the bill.
Congress passed the First Step Act on Dec. 20, and President Trump signed it the next day. On Jan. 7, Douglas’ lawyers filed a motion for his release. Prosecutors said they wouldn’t fight it, and a judge ordered him released three days later.
Douglas’ children — who ranged from toddlers to teenagers when he was sent away — are now 17 to 30. Over time, they gradually realized the full truth of their father’s life sentence, though they never confronted him about it. Now the father they’d known mainly through phone calls and letters has finally showed up in person.
“I was in that child’s mindset: ‘My daddy’s home,’” one of his daughters, Shanice Douglas, 24, recalled of the reunion this month. “Nothing else really mattered.”
Another daughter, Shanitha Douglas, 29, said her family’s faith sustained their belief that Douglas would one day come home.
“God says every man will be free, and he felt he was one of those men,” Shanitha said.
Vera Douglas, a Christian minister, said that when her son walked into her home, she “jumped into his arms and lay my head on his shoulder and cried like a baby.” For days afterward, the joy would suddenly rush over her.
“I just sit up and think about it and I just cry,” she said.
The homecoming, while ecstatic, also marked the start of another difficult journey.
Douglas left prison with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. His family helped him get a cellphone and showed him how to make a call. Then Douglas set about navigating a familiar but changed city. Returning to the South Side, he saw that towering housing projects had been leveled and replaced by townhouses. And he saw construction of the Obama Presidential Center, named for the black president who’d come and gone from office while Douglas was imprisoned.
He immediately began collecting the tools needed to rebuild his life: birth certificate, social security card and state identification card; underwear, socks and a winter coat; street clothes in any color but prison gray and tan. He checked in with a probation officer. He planned trips to courthouses to pay off old traffic fines, the first step toward getting a driver’s license. He ventured onto a city bus, where he struggled to use electronic passes issued by the Chicago Transit Authority. (He hopes to eventually return to work there.) At one point, unable to figure out his cellphone, he asked a transit worker for the nearest pay phone, which didn’t exist.
“I don’t know, I’m just coming home from the penitentiary,” he explained.
He carries the emotional scars of prison, uneasy in crowds, nervous about who is behind him in a restaurant. He remains angry about how long he spent locked up, time missed with his children.
But he knows he is fortunate.
He thinks of the inmates he left behind, men who cheered his release and asked him not to forget them. Some are also petitioning for release under the First Step Act.
“This is not just about me,” Douglas said. “I was one of the first ones to get it, but other guys are waiting to get it. It’s the fact that people took the time to fight for this. And I’m not going to mess that up.”
CORRECTION (Jan. 21, 2019, 2:08 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the group that represented Edward Douglas. It is The Decarceration Collective, not The Decarceration Project.
Jon Schuppe writes about crime, justice and related matters for NBC News.