Gerald Reed freed after 31 years of wrongful imprisonment
Armanda Shackelford speaks at a rally in 2019. The now 78-year-old mother of Gerald Reed has been working for 31 years to free her son from jail. | Brad Sigal

Gerald Reed is finally free after spending 31 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker commuted Reed’s sentence to time served on April 1.

Reed was one of the hundreds of young African American men brutally tortured into making a false confession by Chicago police during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The officers operated in the notorious “midnight crew” under the direction of disgraced and convicted Chicago Police (CPD) Lt. Jon Burge.

The Chicago Police Torture Archive documents the history and stories of the tortured men.

Burge and his gang’s criminal brutality were aided and abetted by the entire criminal justice system in Illinois, including racist states attorneys and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Courts led by racist judges allowed false confessions.

With the backing of a mass campaign for his freedom, Reed finally won a new trial after the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) referred his case to the courts for review. The state legislature had established the commission in 2009 to investigate at least 543 torture cases. But when the trial judge retired in 2018, the new judge inexplicably reinstated his conviction in 2020.

“He could have been out. Because they had offered him plea deals to let him go,” said his mother, Armanda Shackleford. “And he said ‘Mama, I can’t do that. Because if I take a plea deal, those crimes will be on me for the rest of my life. I would make you out to be a liar. Cause that’s something you don’t do.’”

Officers tortured Reed so severely they broke his thigh and dislodged a metal rod in his leg to wring a false confession. Despite the commutation, he vows to continue the fight to clear his name completely.

The campaign to expose and end the torture, free the falsely confessed men, and bring their torturers to justice took decades. Reports of the torture first surfaced in an expose by The Chicago Tribune in the early 1970s. But the CPD, the mayor, and other city authorities continued to sanction the torture, and the press buried it. However, torture victims, their families, progressive lawyers, and community activists persisted in making public the horrendous stories of beatings and electric shock.

The city has spent millions in reparations to victims. In 2011, the court sentenced Burge to 4 1/2 years in prison for lying under oath in civil lawsuits connected to the tortures. However, the city allowed him to keep his police pension.

In 2003, Gov. George Ryan granted clemency to 160 men on death row, many of whom had made false confessions under Chicago police torture. His action spelled the end to the death penalty in Illinois.

Shackleford and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) led the campaign to win Reed’s release. Many other formerly incarcerated, their families, anti-police brutality groups, churches, and other community organizations joined them.

“In the over four decades of existence of the CAARPR has seen many people unjustly imprisoned and tortured by this system come home and every time it happens it is a people’s jubilee, a moment for great celebration,” said Alliance leader Frank Chapman. He vowed the fight would continue until all the victims were free.

A graphic calling for freedom for Gerald Reed prepared by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Shackelford, 78-years-old, was tireless in her efforts to free her son. She spoke across the city, state, and nation and helped found “Mothers of the Kidnapped,” who emerged as the most influential voices for justice.

The campaign for Reed’s freedom took off when Jennifer Soble of the Illinois Prison Project and Sheila Bedi of the Community Justice Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law filed an emergency petition last year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that is raging through Illinois prisons. Reed uses a wheelchair, has suffered a heart attack, and has other serious medical issues resulting from his torture.

The Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture (CFIST), initiated by the Alliance, is urging Governor Pritzker to grant mass pardons to all those found to have credible cases of police torture. CFIST, which Shackleford is also a leader of, sees this as the first step toward freeing all police torture survivors and wrongfully convicted.

“Gerald Reed’s case and the terrible injustice he endured at the hands of the Chicago Police Department show clearly why the CAARPR has helped form the broadest and most representative coalition pushing for a People’s Ordinance – the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance,” the group said in a statement. “The ordinance will give communities in Chicago the voice they deserve in police accountability and make sure cases like Gerald’s never happen again.”


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.