Ramona Brant walked through the prison gates early Tuesday free of shackles 21 years to the day she was sentenced to life without parole for a drug conspiracy conviction.
She cried as a small group of supporters greeted her with hugs and tears of their own.
“Oh my God!” Brant exulted, wrapping her arms around family and friends 3about 6 a.m. outside the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
“I thank everyone for their support — for everything that’s happened to help get this point in my life. It’s an awesome moment for me,” she said.
The Freeport native was one of 95 people — and only one in New York State — who had their drug sentences commuted by President Barack Obama in December. A federal judge had reluctantly sentenced her in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1995, citing mandatory sentencing guidelines.
On Tuesday, Brant, 52, stood in the pre-dawn chill with resolve in her voice.
“I’ve prayed a lot, and my prayer is that God will direct my path from this point on,” she said.
Confident she’d be set free one day and get a second chance, she was already setting her sights on finding a job and building a life in the “new world.” Maybe she’d direct a church choir, she said. Maybe become an advocate for the rights of female prisoners.
But before all that, there was a craving to satisfy: a meal at IHOP, joined by the grown-up nieces and nephews she never had the chance to hold as babies.
Then she planned to report to a halfway house in Charlotte, where her sons, Dwight, 25, and DaJon, 24, live. They were 4 and 3 years old, respectively, when she went to prison. Now each has a grandchild of hers she couldn’t wait to spoil.
In 1995, she and her then-boyfriend Donald Ray Barber, whom authorities labeled a drug kingpin, received the maximum penalty — life in prison without parole — for conspiring to move at least $37 million worth of crack and cocaine powder into Charlotte between 1988 and 1993, The Charlotte Observer reported.
More than 20 years later, Brant would tell the California pro-clemency group CAN-DO: “I never thought that by traveling with my children’s father during his drug buys or answering the phone and conveying a message would land me in prison for the rest of my life.”
Her attorney, Jason D. Cassel, of Longview, Texas, said in December that Brant had no prior criminal history and was in an abusive relationship. He said the judge who sentenced her was “frustrated that he had to impose a life sentence because of the sentencing guideline.”
Those guidelines are no longer mandatory, with federal judges having more discretion, Cassel said.
Last June, the lawyer filed a clemency petition at the request of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.
Brant’s sister, Pandora Brant, 50, of Freeport, said Tuesday that she was “just proud of her for fighting.”
Ossam Byer, 53, a friend of Brant’s since their days at Freeport High School, wrote letters to everyone from first lady Michelle Obama to Hollywood actor-producer Tyler Perry.
“When the most powerful man walking around on Earth can sign his name next to hers — and that’s President Obama — then I look at that as nothing less than a miracle from God,” Byer said.
While in prison, Brant said she wrote and directed plays, and took computer classes, mending her tattered self-esteem.
But despite Brant’s new determination and strong support network, Byer knows she’s scared of the unknown she faces.
“I could see it in her eyes,” he said.
In 1995, hours before she was to receive a life sentence, Brant knew she wouldn’t spend her last days in prison.
“So, today, Feb. 2, 2016, I believe God is saying ... I honored your faith,” she said. “Here I am, 21 years later, a free person.”