Susan LeFevre was an escaped prisoner for more than 32 years, but she was never really free -- not even to work on the cause that she now plans to take up.
On the outside, LeFevre, 53, had a California dream life: a loving husband, three great children, and a suburban San Diego home worth maybe $1 million; she had a housekeeper.
As a teenager in Michigan, LeFevre smoked pot almost daily and occasionally used heroin. As a mom, she talked to her children about the dangers of drug abuse.
She worked for Common Cause and volunteered for charities, but she steered clear of anything related to the criminal justice system, fearful of raising suspicions. She was a fugitive herself, having climbed a barbed wire fence on Feb. 26, 1976, at the old DeHoCo prison facility in western Wayne County, hopped in her grandfather's waiting car and later hitched a ride with a friend who was driving to Los Angeles.
"It was like an ax hanging over my head," she said of living as an escapee. "Every day I went out, I had to think about it. I had to brace for it."
LeFevre was a 19-year-old community college student in 1975 when she drew one of Michigan's crazy and draconian drug sentences: 10-20 years for selling three grams of heroin for $300 to an undercover cop. It was her first offense and, if committed under today's sentencing guidelines, would probably mean probation. LeFevre served one year of her sentence before escaping.
Living under the name of Marie Walsh, LeFevre was happy but never completely at ease. She always thought her capture, if it came, would be when she least expected it. She lost jobs because she didn't have a legitimate Social Security card. She had a driver's license for a while -- and that eventually helped authorities to track her down.
In an interview last week, LeFevre said her children knew nothing of her past. Her husband of 23 years, Alan Walsh, 51, maybe knew bits and pieces. They met when she gave his brother a tennis lesson in Orange County. Only LeFevre's laptop diary had the whole truth, and she kept it safe with a secret password.
On April 24, the knock she had dreaded for decades finally came. Federal marshals acting on a tip arrested her in her home. She kept asking them if they, after all those years, really had to do this.
In May, LeFevre returned to her native Michigan, shackled in a paddy wagon, her ankles and wrists rubbed raw, after a harrowing two-week ride across the country.
"I didn't think I was in America," she said in the interview at the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth Township, wearing the orange and blue gear of the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Since coming to prison, she has lost 10 pounds from a 5-foot-5 inch, 140-pound frame. Once a tournament bridge player with an excellent memory, LeFevre said she couldn't remember her husband's ZIP code -- 92130 -- after she was locked up. Her prison job is cleaning bathrooms.
As inmate No. 140217, LeFevre, formerly of Saginaw, is seeing a slice of America that most middle-class white people never do. Prisons, she says, are worse than they were in the 1970s -- more idle time, fewer programs that aim to rehabilitate. "If all we had in here were middle class people, it wouldn't be this way," she said.
Probably not. Problems in this country -- take health care, for example -- generally don't get fixed or even acknowledged until they hit the middle class. LeFevre is just one of more than 2 million people in this nation who are locked up. Five million more are on probation or parole. At any given time, one in 32 adults is under the supervision of the criminal justice system. But most of them are poor, or black, or both. They have no political juice.
LeFevre is a white, upper-middle-class female. That hasn't made her bit at Scott any easier -- in fact, her notoriety may be making it tougher. But LeFevre also is drawing attention that prison inmates don't usually get, even those suffering worse injustices.
Her arrest made national and international news. Web sites, such as www.freesusanlefevre.com, popped up to defend her. Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the governor's office has received several hundred requests for LeFevre's freedom.
All this attention makes LeFevre uneasy, but she hopes it will make a difference. After her release, LeFevre plans to start a Web site and foundation that will advocate for inmates. She's also writing a book, the proceeds of which would go to her foundation.
"I know some people need to be in prison," she said. "I have three children. Naturally, I want killers and predators here. But there are many people here who are no threat to anyone -- women who were just there when the crime was committed, drug offenders, nonviolent people.
"Prisons have become big business. The war on drugs has created mass incarceration and, after 30 years, what has it gotten us? You can still get drugs anywhere."
LeFevre won't be eligible for parole until 2013. But her attorney, Barbara Klimaszewski of Saginaw, told me she will file a motion today in Saginaw County Circuit Court, asking a judge to vacate LeFevre's 1975 sentence. Granholm could also commute the sentence. Either way, there's no good reason for taxpayers to spend nearly $35,000 a year to keep LeFevre locked up.
Her husband, a waste industry executive, and her children, ages 22, 20 and 15, still live in San Diego and hopefully await her return. LeFevre's 22-year-old daughter just graduated from college with high honors.
"She raised three wonderful children, contributed to her community, and has had no further contact with the legal system," Walsh told me in a telephone conversation Friday. "We miss her very much. I'm hoping the legal system will do the right thing."
LeFevre's case is hardly the worst injustice in Michigan, but, as an upper-middle-class white woman, she has drawn more support than any other inmate I've featured in my years of writing about the prison system. Now she wants to use her notoriety to open the minds of other middle class people who are likely to see a prison only from a nearby highway.
Losing the life she knew has opened LeFevre's eyes and given her a voice. I hope more people like her will look and listen.
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