May 27, 2010 -- An American woman who spent 15 years in harsh Peruvian prisons for conspiring with revolutionaries passed through the security gates and into freedom today.
Lori Berenson, now 40, smiled as she left the Santa Monica prison escorted by her husband, a former inmate who is the father of her 1-year-old son and also her lawyer. The child has been living in the prison with Berenson.
Berenson's parents, who have spent more than $1 million fighting for her release and visiting her in Peru, had left their New York home Wednesday to be with her upon her release.
Berenson's parents brought the child, Salvador, out of the prison separately.
Her sister, Kathy, told ABCNews.com how thrilling it was to have the ordeal come to an end.
"After all these years it is a strange, but wonderful feeling," Kathy Berenson said. "You know how if you carry a heavy weight for a really long time and then put it down, your arms feel so light that they are almost floating? Well that's how I'd describe how I've been feeling since I heard the news."
Lori Berenson must remain in Peru until 2015, the completion of her original 20 year prison sentence.
"I can't predict what will happen after 2015.... One of the many things I've learned from the experience of Lori's incarceration is how little ability we really have to predict the future, since you never really know when something completely unexpected, irrational, or inexplicable might happen," Kathy Berenson said.
"I've also learned that it can be overwhelming for prisoners and those close to them to deal with what many years of incarceration might be like," she said.
Berenson was sentenced to prison by hooded judges 15 years ago after her conviction of aiding left wing revolutionaries.
From the age of 27, Berenson lingered in stark prisons in Peru -- 3,629 miles from her family.
"I think what was hardest for me was the knowledge that she was being unjustly deprived of living fully in the prime years of her life," her mother, New York University physics professor Rhoda Berenson, 67, told ABCNews.com last year.
"It's been a horror," Mark Berenson. told ABCNews.com last December. "Nothing could be worse for a parent."
Berenson gave birth to a son Salvador, now 1, whom she has been raising in prison. Her husband, Anibal Apari, whom she met in prison in 2003, had been released several years ago.
Berenson was a college drop out from MIT when she was arrested in Peru for her militant activities. At the time Peru was in the midst of fighting a vicious guerrilla war with left wing militants.
Mother Says Lori Berenson Hasn't Changed
She was plagued with medical problems, many of which developed in her first two years at a frigid maximum security prison with no heat and running water at 12,800 feet above sea level near the Bolivian border.
"I've seen her age," Berenson, a statistics professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, told ABCNew.com last year. "It was a miracle she could become pregnant."
In 2009, his daughter underwent seven hours of surgery to repair a slipped disk in her vertebrae.
Rhoda and Mark Berenson have made numerous trips to Peru -- about six a year over the last 15 years -- to visit their daughter in a variety of prisons. They were with her in Lima for the birth of their grandson in 2009 and again before Thanksgiving for her spinal surgery.
"It was really horrible in the beginning, but it has improved for Lori and all the prisoners," said Rhoda Berenson.
The mother said the birth of her son Salvador had a "huge effect on her in a very positive way."
"In those horrible years, something really wonderful came of it," she said. "Giving birth to Salvador meant that in spite of the Peruvian government's attempts to ruin her life, they didn't deprive her of motherhood."
Lori Berenson has said she still wants to help others and even though it's too late for her to become a doctor. Her mother said she told her she would like to do something "medically related" when she gets out of prison.
"She is still more interested in helping people than becoming rich," Rhoda Berenson said. "Those things haven't changed.