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Lee Horton Reflects On Coming Home After Years In Prison

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Each year, more than 600,000 Americans are released from state and federal prisons. And with the spread of COVID-19, the pace is accelerating. What's it like to walk free again after years behind bars? Lee Horton and his brother Dennis know the feeling. They were accused of robbery and murder and convicted and sentenced to a life in prison without parole. They always maintained their innocence. And earlier this year, after being locked up for a quarter of a century, they were granted clemency and released. Here's Lee Horton.

LEE HORTON: I'm going to tell you honestly. The first thing that I was aware of when I walked out of the doors and I sat in the car and the car took off and we were driving, and I realized that I wasn't handcuffed. And for all the time I've been in prison, every time I was transported anywhere, I always had handcuffs on, and I always had shackles on. And that moment right there was the most - probably the most emotional moment that I had. Even when they told me that the governor had signed the papers, and they said the next - tomorrow we'll be taking you to a place where you'll be reintegrated, it didn't set in until I was in that car and I didn't have those handcuffs on.

And I don't think people understand that, you know, the punishment is being in prison. When you take away everything, everything becomes beautiful to you. When you take everything away from a man, everything becomes beautiful. When we got out - just to tell you this story - we went to the DMV a couple of days later to get our license back. And me, my brother and another man who was commuted, we stood in line for two and a half hours. And we heard all the stories that everybody tell us, the bad things about the DMV. We had the most beautiful time. And all the people were looking at us because we were smiling and we were laughing, and they couldn't understand why we were so happy. And it just was that - just being in that line was a beautiful thing. It was a wonderful thing.

I mean, I was in awe of everything around me. It's like my mind was just heightened to every small nuance. And prison takes all of that away from you. The things that everybody else takes for granted become the best thing in the world to you. You know, having an onion just to cook your food with becomes priceless.

When you're in prison, those things are not available. Just having a stove and to be able to just look out of a window, just to walk down a street and just inhale the fresh air, just to see people interacting, we - I didn't see children for years, no children. And then I see a little boy running down a street, and it woke something up in me, something that I don't know if it died or if it went to sleep. But looking at that child - I've been having epiphanies every single day since I've been released.

One of my morning rituals every morning is I send a message of good morning to every one of my contacts. And that's, like, 42 people. Family members, I send them good morning, good morning, good morning. Have a nice day. And they're like, how long can I keep doing this? But they don't understand that I was deprived. And now, it's like I have been released, and I've been reborn into a better day, into a new day. Like, the person I was no longer exists. And I've stepped through that time machine. I've stepped through the looking glass onto the other side, and everything is beautiful. And even people getting upset to me seems to be very nice, you know what I mean? I mean, I like to just look at people now. And I smile, and I ask myself, do they know what my secret is?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Such powerful testimony from Lee Horton, released from prison after a quarter of a century. He spoke with NPR's Sally Herships.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.