Sarasota woman freed 25 years after life sentence for non-violent drug offense

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She was given a life sentence for non-violent drug charges. Prison is where she thought she'd spend the rest of her days.

But now, Cheryl Howard is living in Tampa as a free woman, two-and-a-half years after being granted clemency by President Obama. She told FOX 13 about life then and now, and how she's embracing this second chance.

Howard is still getting used to being free.

"It's been one journey," Howard said. "I am forever grateful for it."

She grew up in Sarasota, had a child at 14, got into drugs at 16, and had some run-ins with the law. But one drug sale changed her life forever.

"I sold it to her and she happened to be working with the federal government," Howard said.

Howard was charged with two counts of possession with intent to distribute and one count of conspiracy. Due to prior convictions, she was handed a life sentence at age 26.

"When I saw that release date, it said 'deceased upon release,'" Howard recalled. "That's when I was just completely devastated." 

She says she rebelled at first. It wasn't until 2011 that she had a true awakening. 

"I remember having a serious talk with God. I said, 'God, I have a mandatory life sentence. It doesn't matter. I'm going to die here.' And he said it doesn't matter where you die, it matters who you are when you die."

Howard got into ministry, choir, Bible study, and life skills courses. Her 2014 request for clemency to President Obama was denied. After suffering an aneurysm in 2015 and spending a month on life support, she tried again. This time, it was granted.

"When it happened, I just couldn't believe it. It was just like, is this really happening?" Howard said. 

Last December, wearing heels, not prison boots, Howard walked out of prison. That day, she put a period on one sentence and began writing a new one.

"Everybody was screaming and hollering and telling me bye and we were all crying," Howard remembered. "It was like, this is a new beginning. It's over."

The first months weren't easy. She was homeless and jobless, both risk factors for recidivism. In came two women, cheering her on and giving her a room to call her own.

"There were no stop signs for Cheryl, period," said Renee Kendrick, Director of Social Services at Center for Manifestation. "Anything she needed, whatever helped, I was there to make sure I gave her what I had. She was here for a reason and a season."

Howard is now living at Lisa's Place, a five-room home where other women, newly-released from prison, will soon be able to live.

"It's a transition home where we will be monitoring them for a length of time, helping them get re-acclimated, so we can reduce recidivism in our community," said founder Lisa Jones. "Each woman will have her own bedroom and each room is personalized with each personality."

Howard is now working and in her spare time, writing a book. Her advice to young people? Be patient, go to school, get a job, and listen to your parents.

"Do not get caught up in what you think is easy to get away with if you know it's not right," Howard said. "It may be good but if it's not God, don't do it."

In addition to work and writing, Howard plans to start a program called FED UP or Federal Ex-offenders Driven to their Unexpected Potential. She'll use that program to mentor women after they're released and help them find jobs.