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.