In 1990, Elijah (Gerald) Reed was sentenced to natural life in prison after he was convicted for a 1990 double murder based on a confession that Chicago police tortured him into signing.
In October of that year, Detectives Victor Breska and Michael Hill, who worked under notorious then-Commander Jon Burge, beat Reed to force him to confess. During the interrogation, Breska repeatedly kicked Reed in his right leg, where Reed had a metal rod and pins due to an old gunshot wound. Breska’s torture caused Reed “extreme pain,” according to a 2012 finding by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. The commission concluded that “by a preponderance of the evidence,” Reed’s claim of torture was credible and merited judicial review.
Reed’s mother, Armanda Shackelford, has fought tirelessly for three decades to free both her son and other torture survivors held in Illinois prisons. She has been a constant presence at Reed’s court hearings, penned op-eds arguing for the rights of incarcerated people, and worked with groups such as the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity.
In December 2018, Cook County Judge Thomas Gainer threw out Reed’s confession, vacated his convictions, and ordered a new trial. But on Valentine’s Day 2020, Judge Thomas Hennelley reversed Gainer’s decision and ordered that Reed serve the rest of his life sentence.
On April 1, 2021, Governor J.B. Pritzker commuted his sentence, and Reed walked free and was reunited with his mother.
What follows are Elijah Gerald Reed’s and Armanda Shackelford’s own words, as told to the Weekly.
ELIJAH GERALD REED
My name is Gerald Reed; I go by the name of Elijah. I prefer people to call me Elijah, because I’m walking into a new man, with a new perspective in life, to help as many people as I can because so many people came along the way to help me. So it’s my job now to turn back to what was given to me.
I used to wrestle over what I’mma be when I come back to this world again, because it’s like two different worlds: prison’s world and society’s world. I want people to understand what I went through. What made me a stronger person to where I am today.
So I went on this journey towards my spiritualness. I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Christian. I just believe in a higher power. A lot of people say, “Well that Muslim attire, you must be a Muslim.” I’m a man that believes in a higher power, higher than myself. And with that being said, I don’t take on religion. Religion, you know, it’s gotten too far out of hand. I deal with the relationship. So my relationship with God is like, I’m not gonna say perfect, but I’m a work in progress.
I’m not going to be a failure. I’m that person, I like to study things, I just study, study, study. You know, bring awareness. So I began to work on my weaknesses.
I wrote this book called “Life After Torture.” When I went back to the prison [in February 2020], my spiritual self got to thinking on something. And this spirit just kept getting me, “Go on and finish the book, and when you finish the book you going home.” Okay. “If this what you said, I’mma gonna go home, I’m finna finish this book then.”
Everything I wrote, I wrote from my heart. My writing was how I got people to change. I never let up. Every single day people say, “Why you always writing?” I hope I planted the seed for them, for their future because the writing that they see me do every day, it paid off for me.
A lot of times in prison people be banging and yelling and hollering and screaming. I can’t take that. And I think, for the last year, I took that. I put myself through some horrible hardship on my own. I could have easily went and got me a TV, radio, had everything that every other prisoner had. I chose to be punished in my own mind.
So, I don’t know what kind of obstacles may be before me when I come home, so I can be strong enough, so when those obstacles come, and I never seen them, I know how to deal with them.
Some days I used to think this system was gonna break me. When I go to court on my birthday. I go to court on my momma’s birthday. We expecting this, we expecting that. And always failing. And that comes from an overzealous prosecution, courts, and people just pushing them to do the worst to a person.
Man, some of that pressure, some people can’t take. I done seen plenty of people die in prison because of the same pressure. And for me, it just, that’s why I say it made me stronger. To see that it broke somebody. And I see how bad it broke them and I see how they can’t speak for themselves now, because they way down, six feet under.
It’s my job to explain and expose why it went this way, because they didn’t care. Money is like the root of all things for most people that’s in those systems, instead of life, and I always thought about it like, life is more important. Life is more important to me than money. So my life is important.
Stateville has really horrible conditions. Wintertime, you can feel the outside. Summertime, you got all kinds of bugs and gnats. You go to the chow hall to go eat, you got birds flying above you where you eating at. They will yam-ya in your tray, if y’all know what I mean. You were like, obviously, go get another tray, but go get another tray don’t take that out of my mind, though. That this bird’s just pooted in my tray or pooted on my shoulders.
I’m not saying prison should be a luxurious place, but prison should be a place where you have a constitutional right to eat, sleep, and live as a human being. Showers got mold in it, and you wonder why guys get pain, cancer. It’s just so much.
The whole ceiling in the shower just fell out just a couple of years ago, just fell down on the guys. In the shower! Now, I stopped going in the shower after that. I just do it in my cell, in the sink. Because do I want to die? Who’s to say that ceiling wouldn’t have fell and killed somebody? It knocked one guy’s shoulder out of place, and one guy had a gash in his head. Other than that, it didn’t kill nobody. But this is what you call “corrections.”
Clemency is when the governor pardons you, and just throw the whole circumstance out. Commuting is when they give you a time cut. I got a time cut, which I didn’t want because I’m innocent. Because throughout going back and forth to court, they was offering me time served. It’s the same thing as what I got. It was about seven years in the court system, and they just kept playing, and playing, and playing.
So the governor felt as though Mr. Reed shouldn’t have to endure something like this; his family shouldn’t have to go through this; the citizens should not see nothing like this. So, instead of exposing the system for what they really are, the governor said “Well, let’s get Mr. Reed on out of here.
If I had pleaded guilty, that means I did, I had some involvement. I refused to do that. I want to say my name is clear right now, but I’m still in court as we speak to clear my name. The gentleman [Assistant State’s Attorney], he knows everything about my case, he knows I’m an innocent man, but he wants to portray it as if he’s doing a great job to keep me locked up, and he’s so mad I’m out. I’m like, what you mad about? You should be mad at your peers from behind, way back then. Don’t be mad at me, ‘cause I ain’t do nothing.
I was so hyped about the first day out of prison. Everyone in prison was like, “the first gonna be a wonderful day.” And I just felt it. But when we talked, my lawyer Sheila Bedi said no news is better than good news. But then I went back to my cell, and just got to feeling something. And someone said I should call my lawyer. So it was like twelve o’clock, police gave me the phone. She say, “Mr. Reed, I need you to call me back. I’m on the phone with the Lieutenant Governor. I think we got good news.” Okay. They say good news is on the way. So I’m like, “Wow, alright.”
So 2:30 came, 2:45 came, she picked up the phone, she said, “Hold on.” And I said to myself, “I’ve been holding on for thirty years. How much longer do I got to wait?”
So she came back to the phone again, then said: “We won!” And I just got numb. I was numb from then. She was like, “Gerald?” She would say, “Gerald!” And I finally popped out of it. I’m like, I finally finna see what society is.
So later on that day, I knew I wasn’t going home that day, because if the process wasn’t done by three o’clock, you got to wait ’til the next day. So after packing up my stuff, I gave away all my food. People’s like, “Man, you going home for real?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going home for real. I made a meal for everybody.” They said, “you got a lot of food in there!” I said, “Yeah, and a lot of food I wanna give away too.”
So my whole motto was to be a blessing. How to receive a blessing, you must be a blessing. And I’ve always been a person that tried to help someone out, even if it’s just a smile, say “Hello, how you doing today?” That really makes my day for me. And when that news came in, I was numb all that night, but I can focus though, I could still take care of everything I was doing.
It didn’t really hit me ’til that morning. They woke me up at 4:30 in the morning. Just to sit all the way to 2:30 in the afternoon. I didn’t leave at 2:30. They wanted to congratulate me, all kinds of people’s coming up saying, “So you gonna come back and do a program with us, Mr. Reed?” I said, “Yeah,” That’s my plan B. I wanna stop some of the violence.
And that’s my number two goal before I leave this earth. I want to at least be the solution to the violence because I once was one of those kids that did violence at a young age. So what more can I be used for? A tool to help them open up. You can do better. You can be better. Violence and everything, everybody that—every cop that has a badge on him don’t mean he’s a bad cop. That’s what I bring to the table.
The next day, I was so happy. My niece came here, hugged me so tight I’m like, “Oh no, baby, hold on, you gonna crush me!” She was like, “I ain’t never get any chance to hold on to you this long,” because they only give you like ten seconds to get a hug in prison. I don’t know where they got that from, but that’s out of my range. But that’s how I felt. And right now today, I’m still numb.
I love doing hair. Cosmetology was my trade before I went to prison. I don’t even see that no more. I just think I’mma be an activist-slash-paralegal, help other people that are left behind. I see a system that’s failed not only me, but them. So how do we begin to restructure the system back towards erasing recidivism. They say reform, they say a second chance. How do we do all that in one package?
You have to let people that’s on the inside share what they had changed. And that change before you end up just shutting the door on them. Because they say everybody gets a second chance, right? It’s a lot of men, they were there ever since they was kids, babies. How do they get a second chance when you gave them natural life?
There’s no second chance for them, because of your prior friends, prior engagement with the legal system, or whatever it may be. So I’mma be advocating on their behalf. I’m seeing how many people I can come together with: lawyers, students, activists, organizations and colleges. Anybody who’s about wanting to make a difference in Chicago, I wanna be there when they do. This is only just the tip of the iceberg. And I know we should change something. Just got to believe in each other, talk to each other, stop downgrading each other.
There’s so many people that’s in jail, prison, that shouldn’t be there. But the only time it really comes to the forefront is when they get out. And they somebody now, because if it weren’t, for my case, y’all wouldn’t know nothing about me.
Now imagine there’s some more Elijahs out there. They’re screaming every day. Man, come on. I get calls every day: “Man, my brother called me, he told me to call you, and help him out with his case. I told him hold on a little while. I told him give me thirty days.” I couldn’t wait thirty days, because I wouldn’t want myself to be in that position and somebody start telling me that hold on another thirty days. So I started in the first week. Give me one week, I’m gone. Strap my boots up and I got to get on the road. And I’m not gonna stop until the day I die. I don’t see nothing else, and I can’t, I don’t see myself doing anything else.
I look at the guys I left behind at Stateville, the majority of them guys like my brother. Because my real brothers in the streets that I was raised up with, which I wouldn’t even call them my brothers, I call them my bloodlines.
We don’t even talk. We got two bloodlines, we don’t even talk. Because all I ever asked them was to look out for my mama; don’t send me money. I’mma be alright, I’m a grown man. But the majority of my friends and brothers that I left behind, we was like a family. And still are.
That’s why I say I left half of my heart back there, because they hold on to it. I say my heart is with them because I did see the ups and downs; somebody dies, somebody gets sick. When I got sick, they was there for me. It’s like what a family would do. And you just not gonna leave your family behind and not speak about them. I miss my brothers behind the wall a whole lot. I want to let them know how deeply I am gonna miss them, and I will be their voice for change in Chicago.
My thought is: where do we go from here? Do this end at this article, or do we assist? How do we help the guys that’s back there that don’t have nobody? Because I have a laundry list of guys that’s innocent. My question to you all is, do it stop here? I hope I can just turn a notch a little bit, and somebody else could turn it a little bit, you know, we all take our time to turn it a little bit.
My name is Armanda Shackelford. I am the mother of Gerald Reed, who had his sentence commuted by the governor. This happened on the first of April, and he was released from Stateville prison on the second of April.
When I got the news, oh, I screamed! [laughs] Oh yes, I screamed, I was so happy. I found out Thursday and his case was in court the same day. So later on after court, a young lady called me to tell me that the Lieutenant Governor had contacted her and that she would be calling back later. And I guess it was after two o’clock when I got the news that the Lieutenant Governor had stated that the governor had commuted Gerald’s sentence. But we didn’t know at the time when he would be released. And this happened on a Thursday. The first.
We didn’t know whether they would do it on the second or it would be on the fifth—Monday. But they went on and did it that Friday. The second, and we were happy—oh, my! Oh, my my my! I just wish that the governor had given him a full pardon. But I’m happy for what he’s gotten.
His lawyers have done a great job. I’m very appreciative of all of their work and—it’s sad, also, at the same time, a man spending thirty years in prison, thirty and a half years, for two crimes that he did not commit. They never had any evidence to prove that Gerald did these crimes.
But at the same time, these special prosecutors offered him a plea deal. If I’m not mistaken, there was four deals altogether that was offered to him and he turned down all of them. Because he said that if he had taken the plea deal, those cases would have been on him for the rest of his life. So he would be agreeing to murder, which he did not do. And they had no evidence to prove that he did these crimes.
And because he wasn’t willing in 1990 to sign the statement, they tortured him. They tortured him so bad they broke the bone in his right thigh and he had a rod inside that bone—they broke it off him because he wouldn’t sign the statement.
And then after the physical and mental abuse that was given to Gerald, he got tied up doing these things to him. So he went on and agreed, and he signed the statement.
But, you know, I think that police have gotten even worse because now they’re killing. And I feel as though the higher ups, like the mayor and the alderpersons, would put forth an effort and show the police officers: you continue to do that, we gonna have to take some actions against you. You will be fired and you will not be able to get no pension, nothing. Because, I mean, you got to start showing them that what they’re doing is not right. Saying it is not enough. You got to show it.
I didn’t support Gerald alone. I had a lot of help. I had a whole lot of help. The support that they gave in court—it was dynamic. There was so many people that showed up, people that I didn’t even know, that didn’t even know Gerald. And to show concern and care for someone that has been abused and tortured the way he had.
And God is the one that mainly gave me the strength ’cause there would be days when I would come home and cry after court. Thinking everything would be different. And this judge and this prosecutor would stop doing the things that they were doing without any proof, any evidence to back themselves up.
Sometimes I would say, you know, I’m not going to cry again. But then when something really bad happens again, I wind up crying.
Instead of me, whenever he would call me after court, guess who would be doing the lifting up? He would be lifting me up, encouraging me. Telling me, “Mama, it’s gonna be alright.” But he’s the one who’s behind bars. And once them bars get to him, it’s hard to get them off. It’s hard. I mean, I’ve been fighting for thirty and a half years.
Even while he was in prison, Gerald lifted my spirits when I was down. He is a caring person. There were times when he was behind the bars. Some of the guys who were coming into the prison, the new guys were going through some things there, and Gerald would call me and he would say, “Mama, would you talk to this person.” Most of them were young guys in their twenties. My son is fifty-seven. And he would ask me to talk to them so they would feel better.
I never would say no because whatever time I have, if you call me asking me to do something—to encourage someone, to say a prayer, he called me and asked me to do that, and I did it—because I feel like God put me here for a reason, and as long as my son was locked up, I was gonna do whatever he asked me to do long as I know it’s the right thing to do—and Gerald’s not gonna ask me to do nothing wrong because he knows who I am.
When I would finish talking to one of those guys, Gerald would get the phone back and he would say, “Mama, that person is smiling, he’s got a smile on his face.” And that made me feel good and feel that I did something that God wanted me to do. Talking can uplift your spirits. That’s what I’m here for.
For the governor to do this, it was a blessing. Oh Lord, it was such a blessing. Years and years ago, somebody had asked me to do a speaking engagement. And I told them, and I said, “It’s just like walking through a tunnel, and you don’t see no light anywhere.” Now, the light is there. The tunnel is open. And I can see outside, see light. And that is so great to be able to say, now, I see the light! The tunnel is over.
But then there are men and women that are still in that tunnel. So the fight is not over. Even in Gerald’s case, his name has to be cleared; we believe that that’s going to be done also. But the men and women that are still behind the bars, that’s just beginning. I’m not gonna be happy until all of them that’s not supposed to be there get out. Those people should be released also. And it hurts to know how the judges and the prosecutors and the state’s attorney are not doing enough.
The judges really are not doing anything, especially in Gerald’s case. One judge overturned his conviction and granted him a new trial. And all the people that was coming to court for support—they heard it, it wasn’t just me. All of them heard exactly what was done on the day, on the 14th of February 2020, when this new judge reversed the former judge’s decision. This new judge, he wasn’t higher than the former judge. Both of them had the same status. But for him to reverse that decision was a disaster. I lost faith in the judicial system. The judicial system is lousy. It’s horrible.
And I think about, how would they feel if this was their son, their father, their uncle, or some relative. And that person, if a judge and a prosecutor would do these type of things to their family member, I wonder how would they feel.
The one thing I would say is, if your family member tells you that they did not do the crime, that someone beat them, tortured them badly, to get them to sign a statement—when they tell you that, that proves the police have no evidence. And if there’s definite evidence another person did the crime, or a witness was there at the time the crime was done, and you can be sure of that witness, that’s good.
But if you do not have a witness, a substantial witness, or you don’t have the evidence to prove that another person did these crimes—fight like the dickens, with all of your might, for that family member, whoever it is. Even if it’s not a family member, you just know that person, fight for them. Because once they are inside, they can’t do no fighting. It’s up to you.
And don’t give up. Because there are gonna be days when it’s hard. And there gonna be days when you’ll be crying. You got to keep on fighting. Because if you believe that person did not do that, fight for them. Until someday, someone is going to see that all of your fighting is true. And they gonna have to give in.
But that’s the thing about them, the prosecutors and the judges. They don’t want to give in because whatever amount of years that person has spent in prison, they gonna have to accept they were wrong. If they give in and let that person go, then they are admitting, “I did wrong. That person shouldn’t have been kept in prison all of those years.”
And it hurts. And some people don’t even know these types of things were going on. But then some do know, but they have stoppers in their ears and blindfolds on, like if I don’t hear, I don’t see, then it didn’t happen. But then it’s not your family, it’s my family. And you just can’t ignore it, like it’s going to go away. It’s there. Open your eyes and see. Take those stoppers out of your ears and hear what these people are saying. And they gonna say that when they catch them, this officer, these types of things didn’t happen. It’s got to be real, it’s got to be for real. It happened. And until you start doing something about it, start realizing that these types of things are going on, it’s gonna keep getting worse like it is now.
There are different organizations that support torture survivors, like the Chicago Torture Justice Center, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. We have a mamas and papas support group, and we develop strategies to get the attention of the governor or the state’s attorney or the attorney general to help them help us. And make them aware of the problem around what our family members have been charged with.
The group is another way of showing concern and care about the family members and how important it is to keep fighting. It helps give you support so it’s not all on your family. That’s important, especially if you know for sure that your family member did not commit the crime they have been charged with.
If you find out, get involved! Don’t just think that if you tell this person or these people about your son or husband going through certain things [it’s going to help]. You got to show them. They’re not going to do nothing by themselves. And don’t give up, stay with it.
On the day he was released, Gerald asked me—he loves lemon meringue pies and he said, “Mama, you got my pie?” And I said, “I haven’t fixed it yet, but I plan to go shopping tomorrow!” And I got the things to make his lemon meringue pie. Yesterday he came by with my godson and I made spaghetti for them. But his favorite is lasagna. He also loves greens, he loves vegetables. So this weekend, if he can get somebody to bring him, I plan to fix some greens and probably bake some chicken, and cornbread and macaroni and cheese. That’s what I plan to have for dinner.
But you know, on Friday when he was released, he said “I left a lot of friends back there. And I’m not just out to not do anything to help them. I’ve got to help them also.” And I was glad to hear that because I felt like now I got some help! So we gonna be out here fighting together.
You know, we have had so much hatred going on. People that don’t show care. That’s been going on for years. And there was a higher-up, a person in the White House showing Black and brown people that they not important.
So if we start showing love, and believe me, I have seen so much love from all colors. And that is such a blessing. To see people care. When they found out about Gerald being released that Thursday evening, I got so many calls. I left after Gerald was released, I went where he was and I didn’t come home from Friday to Monday. When I looked at my phone [laughs], I had forty-eight missed calls. I said, “Maaaaan! Look at that!” [laughs] And that just touched my heart, to know how concerned people are now.
That’s why I say: what I do, we got to do the same thing for every last one that’s there that shouldn’t be there. Just have to keep on going. And I’ve told people, I said, “God kept me from here. This is what I will be doing.”
Anybody who reads this, if you’ve got a family member that’s locked up or you got friends that’s locked up in prison, fight for them. Don’t give up when things look like it’s not gonna work out. Always think the opposite. Even when things don’t look good now, it’s gonna get better. And if you see one person getting out, be happy for that person, and think, “That person is out, Mine’s coming. I don’t know when, what day, what hour, none of that. But it’s coming.”