“I’ve spent more time in prison than I’ve spent outside in society, and essentially grew up in prison,” says Antonio Howard, who lived in Pennsylvania state prison for more than 26 years. Yet today, what defines Antonio the most is not his imprisonment, but rather his vibrant relationship to art and his community. Now free, Antonio is a successful artist, author, activist, and paralegal.
From the start, life was tough for Antonio — growing up with a drug dealing father, physical abuse, and powerlessness. He entered juvenile prison at age 12, and was sentenced to life in adult prison at 15 for his role in a robbery that led to the shooting death of Richard Stevens. Despite the fact that he did not harm or intend to harm, Pennsylvania law mandates life without parole sentencing for a felony murder, regardless of age and circumstances surrounding the crime.
Behind bars, Antonio took advantage of all avenues available to him for growth. “It was the libraries, art, poetry, and support of others,” he says, “that kept me from losing my mind.”
It was art, especially, that saved him. “I met an artist in county jail named Jasper Sanders, who could captivate the entire block with drawing portraits. I used to stand over his shoulder while he did it, with his sharpened pencils, drawing on the back of a piece of paper or on a page ripped out of Jet magazine.
“I remember wanting to do that, but not really being sure I had the talent. Then later on, I started sketching more and learning about art — the concepts and the practice. In the privacy of a prison cell, art can sometimes be the breath that can keep you going.”
Meanwhile, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana and ruled that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama was retroactive. The case held that sentencing people under 18 years of age to life in prison was unconstitutional, and now it applied retroactively to more than 2,600 individuals nationwide. As a result, Antonio was granted a second chance resentencing hearing, during which overwhelming evidence of his accomplishments was presented.
Even the victim’s family member spoke out in support of his second chance. Antonio became the second Erie County juvenile sentenced to life behind bars to be resentenced. He was released several months later in 2018 with a detailed plan and support system for reentry.
“Art is a portal and a connection point. I use art as the means to bring community together.”
His mother’s face was the first he saw when he got out. “It felt like a rebirth, and I revisited all the pain that I caused her, and also the happiness. We just hugged and cried together.”
Since his release, Antonio has held several jobs, earning promotions in every role, from janitor to job coach, to manager of a consumer drop-in center to his current position as paralegal. “Since I’ve been out, I’ve been focusing on adulthood and moving toward ownership of my life,” he says.
And he continues to hone his art and push his deeply held belief that art can heal. “Art is a portal and a connection point. I use art as the means to bring community together.” He works with private and municipal clients to create indoor and outdoor murals, and his portraiture resides in many galleries and private collections. He also teaches art, and is a published author with three books to his name.
More than anything, Antonio strives to be an example of the potential of people coming out of incarceration. He recognizes that his success story includes not only himself, but the community being willing to take a chance on him. “It’s somebody looking at my criminal background and still deciding to say yes. My successes have something to do with what I’ve done in my education, but they have more to do with the substance of the community willing to take another chance on me.”
Will you help us shine a light on more people who got a second chance like Antonio did and are proving the alarmist headlines wrong? Please read and share the many stories in our Free to Succeed series.
Listen to Antonio talk about the power of art to heal – behind bars and now in his community: