They married men in prison for life. Now, a change in the law could bring their husbands home.

Medical technician Valeria "Dean'na" Evans with photos taken over 40 years of Tyrone Zeigler, a juvenile lifer whom she is engaged to marry. She met him when she was 14.

When Demetra Hatton got married 13 years ago, not everyone in her family saw reason to celebrate.

"My sister was like, 'You're marrying someone, and they have life without the possibility of parole?' " Hatton recalled. "I said, 'Yes, but we're going to defy those odds.' "

It was a curious match: Hatton, 61, has a master's degree, a career in human services, and her own home in Point Breeze. Her husband, Nathaniel Anderson, has been imprisoned since age 16, when he was part of a gang battle that ended in a fatal shooting.

But they made it work. And on an October morning, Hatton saw her patience rewarded: She sat in a Philadelphia courthouse, surrounded by her daughters and granddaughters, and watched as Anderson, now 59, an imam and a Villanova University graduate, received a new sentence making him eligible for immediate parole.

Some 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia - the largest such population in the nation - are up for new sentences, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

That means as well a new chapter for perhaps dozens of marriages, engagements, and relationships that have endured in limbo for years or decades with meager hope of the basic perks many people expect from marriage - like cohabitation, or physical intimacy.

Those who work in reentry say the return home can be rocky, as the romance of long-distance relationships collides with the reality of daily life. While the men were in prison, their partners endured the burdens and indignities of a prison relationship: recorded phone calls and monitored mail, long waits and pat-downs to visit their husbands or boyfriends, the costs of meals and commissary accounts. But once out, they face what may be an equally daunting challenge: supporting men returning to the world with little experience and no means.

Still, among women who have spent countless hours in noisy, fluorescent-lit prison visiting rooms, eating vending machine meals and dreaming of the future, optimism prevails.

At 8 on a weekend morning, the waiting-room crowd at Graterford Prison is mostly regulars, and mostly women. They're not allowed to wear spandex or tank tops. Many make up for it with sparkling jewelry, carefully styled hair, and a full face of makeup.

Inmates such as Haywood "Red Dog" Fennell are keenly aware it's not much in the way of a date.

He's been in prison since 1968, and with the same woman since 1979.

"Every year I always give an opportunity: 'If you want to stay, I'm very thankful, but if you're tired and you want to move on, I can accept that.' Every year I always put that offer out on the table," he said. "She's entitled to a life, too. I'm trying to recapture mine."

Fennell, 66, was convicted of robbing and stabbing to death a man in North Philadelphia. He regrets his crime, he told the court before receiving a new sentence in November.

What he also feels guilty about, and hopes to make amends for, is the strain his incarceration put on his wife and stepchildren.

He's now eligible for parole. If it's granted, he will spend time in a halfway house first: "I don't know what it's like to see curtains no more, or plates, glasses, a mattress thicker than eight inches."

Then he will attempt to navigate his marriage.

"She's used to being in her house by herself. I can't just go in there like I automatically belong," he said. "You can't just throw people together no matter how much they care about each other. We're talking about 50 years' separation."

Some of the couples met in prison, where women were visiting as volunteers. Others connected through shared religious communities. Still others are childhood sweethearts who never could quite seem to separate.

That was the case for Valeria "Dean'na" Evans, a 54-year-old medical technician from the city's Hunting Park section. She was a shy 14 when she met Tyrone Ziegler, who lived near her aunt in West Oak Lane.

"He was rough and tough, exciting," she said. "He was different from the rest of the guys I knew. They was too by-the-book, too predictable. I like a challenge - and, believe me, Tyrone was."

But Ziegler's home life was chaotic. Evans' parents would give him food, and Evans was teaching him to read and write.

It wasn't enough. At 16, Ziegler broke into the home of a 28-year-old woman. When she walked in on the burglary, he followed her into her bedroom, and stabbed and killed her.

Evans stayed with him for five years. Then, they both tried to move on.

"I didn't want to put her in prison with me," Ziegler said.

Evans met another man, got married, got divorced. In the background, there was Ziegler. He sent her a card each Christmas and never forgot her birthday. They've been on-again off-again for decades.

In August, when Evans heard Ziegler could soon be released, they reconnected. They talk on the phone every day, and she visits on alternate Wednesdays. They anticipate he could soon be resentenced and up for parole.

"You meet that special person once in a lifetime. To have a second chance, that's amazing," she said.

The Supreme Court, in calling for the resentencing of men such as Ziegler, emphasized neuroscience showing that children are different than adults - less culpable for their crimes and more amenable to reform.

Ziegler, for one, got his GED, became skilled in carpentry and plumbing, and volunteers with the NAACP and other organizations. Now, he has a job lined up and, he hopes, a future with Evans. They plan to marry.

"I so much want to do what's right," he said. "But it's all going to be new for me. She'll keep me from straying."

Patience is requisite for these women - for the times when the prison goes on lockdown, delaying a visit for hours, and for the slow workings of the criminal justice and parole systems.

Yet, for Muslim women in particular, restrictions on dating can make a chaste correspondence with an incarcerated man an appealing option.

That's how Antoinette "Mahaa" Haren, 44, of Linwood, Delaware County, ended up with a juvenile lifer, John Blount. They were married under Islamic law six years ago and legally this fall.

Haren came across a web page Blount's sister created, seeking a wife for him. She failed to notice the prison jumpsuit he wore in his photo. Later, as they wrote to one another, she was attracted to his patience and knowledge of Islam. The fact that he had shot and killed two men as a teenager in 1989 didn't seem relevant.

"I was like, 'Well, he's been completely honest with me, and he's not worse than some of the men out here,' " she said.

Love came later.

Even from prison, Blount motivated her to be a better woman, Haren said. He got his GED and inspired her to get hers, even helping her learn the math. He urged her to conquer her fears and finally get her driver's license.

"He's always in my corner," she said. "I came from a real bad home situation, and I been on my own since I was 17. I really never had anyone who believed in me until I met him. I didn't believe in myself, even."

She visits on alternate Sundays, waking up at 4:45 a.m. to be at the prison by 7 a.m. Sometimes she brings her grandchildren. Blount has not yet received a new sentence, but Haren is already contemplating their future with hope - and anxiety.

"He has OCD and I have ADHD. So he's like a super clean freak, and I'm a super messy freak. I don't know how that's going to work," she said. "And I think it will be awkward the first time we're intimate. I worry about that."

For Haren, those are concerns for the future.

But others are wrangling with these challenges already: The first juvenile lifers to be paroled in Pennsylvania were released in September.

For Doreen "Pam" St. John, it concluded a decades-long wait.

St. John was 12 and Earl Rice Jr. was 13 when they first fell in love. But at 17, Rice snatched a woman's purse, and she fell, hit her head, and died.

He was sentenced to life, but St. John married him anyway in 1988. She divorced him in 2002 - "a mistake," she says now - but they've been engaged once again since 2008.

In September, Rice left prison after 43 years.

The next day, the couple went to a hotel.

Now, St. John wants a real wedding - with both their families, not like the first time in prison.

But it will wait until they can afford it.

For now, instead of driving to Graterford to visit Rice, St. John drives to Wilmington. Rice is living there with his father, relishing doing his own laundry, cooking his own food, seeing his daughter and grandchildren, working on getting his driver's license.

He's more in love with St. John than ever, he said.

"The world is so much different from when I was last in it," he said. "To have people that love and care about you, it helps."

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed