Renaldo Hudson: Thank you for my freedom, Gov. Pritzker. It is time to do more.

An open letter to Governor JB Pritzker, one year after the governor commuted Renaldo Hudson's life sentence.

Dear Governor Pritzker,

I write this letter exactly one year after your courageous decision to grant my request for executive clemency. I sat in prison through the terms of six of your predecessors. I survived 37 years of incarceration, including 13 years on death row and 17 years serving life without the possibility of parole. When you saw past my conviction and gave me a second chance at freedom, you challenged a system that lacks compassion. You confronted an institution that rarely makes room for second chances. You gave me my life back.

But there is much more to be done.

Thousands of others like me have been disregarded and left to languish behind bars. Decades of regressive policies and racist practices created a system where people are aggressively prosecuted and excessively sentenced. Of the more than 27,000 people incarcerated in Illinois, nearly 40% are serving sentences of at least two decades—two-thirds of them are Black.

Our prison population is also aging because of lengthy sentences. Almost a quarter of people in prison are elderly — a number that will only continue to grow. From 1993 to 2013, the number of elderly people in prisons across the nations grew 400%. Yet elderly people pose no credible threat to public safety.

I know firsthand that clemency has an unparalleled potential to reckon with the trauma and racism perpetuated by mass incarceration. Our government can and must play a role in freeing the thousands of people behind bars who, like me, deserve a second chance. For far too long, we have been locked away and treated as disposable.

My bad decision made after years of abuse placed me in prison, but it is only one part of who I am. In the year since my release, I have used my platform to emphasize that no one is defined by their worst mistake. I have spoken in classrooms and convention halls, determined to share my message of empathetic justice. I have met with lawmakers, community organizers, and faith leaders. I have shared my experiences with poverty, trauma, incarceration, and redemption far and wide.  

After  37 years  in prison, I was not the broken teenager that was sentenced to die at the hands of the state. My transformation may look dramatic, but it is no way unique. Just as I was, there are now thousands of people sitting in cells throughout Illinois who have spent years growing, learning, and changing.  Just as I was, they are ready to return home. Without parole or mid-sentence review, there is no recognition within the criminal legal system that people change or grow. There has to be room for mercy and justice to sit together.

I proudly wear the banner of the Pritzker administration. I thank you for restoring my freedom, and for allowing me to motivate thousands who hope to breathe on the other side of the prison walls. You recognized the full extent of my actions — both good and bad. By exercising humanity, you have helped me see hope in the Governor's office.

Now, I urge you to extend that hope to others. By exercising your unlimited clemency powers, you can bring justice to the elderly and those serving unduly long sentences. You can extend reform efforts to people already in prison, who have been excluded from reform. With a stroke of your pen, you can restore hope to families who feel like it will never again return to their lives.

Hope is the foundation of healing. Together, we must work toward a system that realizes both.

Faithfully and respectfully,

Renaldo Hudson