Keeping it real

A small taste of freedom

By: pardoned Illinois death row prisoner Stanley Howard

It's been five years since then-Gov. George Ryan pardoned me and allowed me to walk off Illinois' death row. Unfortunately, because of another bogus conviction, I wasn't immediately released like the other three pardoned members of the Death Row 10.

I have never been to prison until I arrived on death row on that memorable day in April 1987. I soon discovered that death row wasn't prison. It's a super-max prison, insane asylum and human slaughterhouse all combined. I spent 16 horrifying years there under the strictest restrictions, until I was pardoned on the basis of innocence.

Moments after the pardons was announced on national TV, the warden showed up with the papers for me to sign and to escort me off the row to the general prison population.

I got into a heated argument with the warden before leaving. He wanted me to "turn around and cuff up," which was standard procedure before ever opening the door to a death row cell.

I insisted on not cuffing up. I was no longer a condemned prisoner and shouldn't be treated as one. "You will be treated like a condemned inmate as long as you're on the condemned unit," the warden said. "Turn around and cuff up." I complied with his request even though I felt his reasoning made no since and was unjust. And as soon as the condemned unit door closed behind us, the warden ordered the guard to remove the handcuffs.

It was at that moment--for the first time since I was sentenced to death--that I felt like I was given a new lease on life.

The state of Illinois no longer wanted to execute me for a crime I did not commit. And since that moment, they have been gradually giving me a small taste of freedom in stages.

The transition of going from death row to prison was no less traumatic for me than it is when prisoners are released back into society after serving a long sentence. Even the prison administration was aware of the possible trauma I was going to experience. They had someone checking on me every half an hour for a week straight.

I went from death row to a maximum-security prison in 2003, to a medium/maximum in 2006, and then to a medium in April 2008. I went from being locked in a cell for 22 to 23 hours a day for over 20 years and constrained with handcuffs before leaving the cell to actually having a key to the cell door and being out of the cell for 12 to 13 hours a day--yard, gym and law library every day.

I cannot explain how it felt using a key to open up a cell door for the first time, but it felt very strange. It may seem insignificant, especially to other prisoners, but for me, it's just another small taste of freedom.

Keeping It Real: These small tastes of freedom are only preparing me for my soon-to-be deserving freedom.

You can contact Stanley by writing to: Stanley Howard #N71620, 2600 N. Brinton Ave., Dixon, IL 60612.