CHICAGO — After nearly four decades in prison for his role as the lookout in two gas station robberies, Basil Powell was given a second chance at life Thursday.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker commuted the former Chicago man’s natural life sentence earlier this week amid mounting pressure from prison reform advocates urging the release of elderly or ill inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.
Powell, a 68-year-old grandfather with diabetes and high blood pressure, has been in prison since 1986 under an old tough-on-crime sentencing law that labeled him a habitual criminal and forever slammed the prison door shut after his third class X felony conviction.
Instead, Powell walked out the gates of Dixon Correctional Center a free man Thursday, eager to spend the remaining years of his life with his family in Joliet.
“I feel good, like a thousand bricks got up off my shoulders,” he said in a telephone interview as his daughter drove him home. “I didn’t think this day would come like this. I’ve been fighting all my life to get out and kept being told no.”
Powell is among a group of people serving life sentences in the Illinois Department of Corrections to whom Pritzker has quietly granted release in recent days through his executive clemency power.
His office did not provide information on the commutations Thursday. But Pritzker has commuted the sentences of 17 Illinois prisoners since March 11, including seven convicted of murder.
Pritzker has not said if the action is related to the pandemic, but he made it clear other recent measures were intended to slow its spread in prisons and keep staff and inmates safe.
For example, earlier this week, the governor signed an order giving state prison authorities more discretion to grant medical furloughs to inmates with health problems. Overall, IDOC officials said they had reduced the system population by 1,345 inmates since March 2.
As of Thursday, 79 staff members and 112 inmates had confirmed infections inside prisons across the state. The vast majority are in Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, where at least two inmates have died from COVID-19, officials said.
The outbreak has prompted urgent calls from activists who want older inmates, in particular those with underlying medical conditions, to be set free. Lawyers have filed several lawsuits, including against Pritzker, seeking transfers to home detention or release for inmates.
In Powell’s case, his attorney filed an emergency petition March 31 with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and Pritzker to commute the prisoner’s life sentence to time served. The petition cites the coronavirus as the reason behind the emergency request.
“Such an act is not only merciful and just, but it is in the public’s interest,” attorney Jennifer Soble said, noting the low recidivism rate for Powell’s age group. “It will help flatten the curve and reduce the risk of another serious infection in Illinois prisons, with no detriment to public safety.”
Soble, executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Illinois Prison Project, submitted paperwork Thursday for the release of 44 other imprisoned men who like Powell are serving life sentences under the habitual criminal law for an armed robbery-related offense in which no one suffered serious injury.
Nearly all of them are minorities and were convicted in Cook County decades ago. Soble said they all were victims of a “trial tax,” because prosecutors only sought to invoke the stiff sentencing law if the defendant didn’t take a plea deal.
She said their median age is 61 and their median time in prison is 27 years. In comparison, most convicted armed robbers are eligible for release after eight or nine years, she said, citing corrections data.
Soble said she hopes Powell’s case will open the door for the others. Besides the 44 men, there are another three dozen or so in prison for life in connection with nonfatal Cook County armed robberies — all sentenced under the habitual criminal law — but Soble said she is seeking immediate release only for those who are elderly and have housing plans secured.
Ayisha Powell said she was about 22 months old when her father went to prison. Despite his incarceration, the 37-year-old Joliet woman said the two formed a close bond through visits, phone calls and letters.
She said her father’s card arrived in the mail for every birthday. In each card or letter, he promised he would come home someday, writing, “I shall return.”
“He’s kept a positive mindset all these years,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he’s always been in good spirits.”
“It really is a blessing and the best feeling of my life,” she continued. “God answered our prayers.”
She and her mother, Frances McCullum, picked Basil Powell up Thursday from the prison and brought him back to Joliet. He will live with McCullum, who said she “never gave up hope” that this day would come.
“I have lived alone all these years waiting for his return,” she said. “We would like to spend whatever time we have left, married (and) together with our daughter and grandchildren.”
Also this week, Pritzker commuted the life sentence of Charles Harris, 58, another Cook County man convicted of armed robbery who was serving a mandatory life term under the habitual criminal law.
Harris, released Wednesday and living with family in Chicago, had been in prison since 1988. He was a juvenile when he committed his first two armed robberies. No one was physically hurt in his crimes, which together netted $235, according to his attorneys, John Frawley and Bethany Felder.
According to Pritzker’s April 7 commutation orders, Powell and Harris must serve a three-year period of mandatory supervised release. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx did not oppose their release, her office confirmed Thursday.
One day before he commuted the sentences of Powell and Harris, Pritzker took similar action in the case of Marilyn Mulero, 49, who was released Wednesday, according to the IDOC website. She was sentenced in 1993 to death, later commuted to life, for the revenge murders of two gang members in Chicago.
Before she was imprisoned, her life was marked by physical and sexual abuse, her lawyers have said, adding that she was a model prisoner who has led several programs, including a support group for female inmates.
Of the 17 commutations, seven involved murder convictions. Three of the seven were Cook County cases. Besides Mulero, Alma Durr, 50, and Carl Reed, 59, received gubernatorial commutations. Both remained in prison late Thursday, according to the IDOC website.
Information wasn’t immediately available if Foxx weighed in on the murder cases.
Powell grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He served two years in the U.S. Marines in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War but was not sent overseas. He became addicted to drugs afterward and committed two armed robberies in 1974 and 1976 to support his habit, according to his clemency petition. He pleaded guilty to both and spent time in prison.
But it was his role in two gas station stickups in August 1984 in Cook County that would lead to Powell’s life sentence. No one was physically injured in either. Powell, the lookout man, was not armed.
His co-defendant, who displayed a weapon and demanded cash from the clerk in each crime, pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was released from prison after serving about six years, according to court records.
In nearly four decades of prison life, Powell lived in several facilities across Illinois and held jobs in janitorial, kitchen, laundry, laborer and commissary roles. He’s received certificates for educational, spiritual and vocational training and is ranked the highest grade level for behavior, according to his clemency petition.
On Thursday, Powell said he is most looking forward to finding a job and helping his daughter raise his five grandchildren, including his 2-week-old grandson Ayshawn. He and McCullum also plan to wed, finally. He was thankful to Soble and the Illinois Prison Project.
“I know the situation right now out here is that everything is shut down because of the virus,” he said, “but I’m hoping to live the rest of my life happily with my family. I’m so grateful.”
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