Lisa Armstrong is an award-winning journalist and former Center for Fiction fellow with credits in The New York Times, The Intercept, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, USA Today, The New Yorker, and several other websites and publications. She has reported from several countries, including Sierra Leone, Kenya, and the Philippines, and reported from Haiti from 2010 to 2014, through grants from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and NYU. She has been featured on NPR and the BBC, discussing rape in the camps in Haiti and HIV/AIDS in the aftermath of the earthquake.
She is currently reporting on incarceration and has had grants from The Investigative Fund, The Carter Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism/Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism to support her work. She recently wrote a story about a man who was released from prison after 47 years behind bars on a juvenile life without parole sentence and another on juvenile solitary confinement. Armstrong also directed Little Lost Boy, a documentary about a young man who was incarcerated in an adult prison when he was 16 that premiered in May 2017 and was featured in the Social Impact track at SXSW 2018. Armstrong is an associate professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
Portrait photo courtesy artist.
Zerious Meadows was sentenced to life without parole at 17. Now, he’s struggling with freedom, 2017
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 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.