My name is Lee Horton. I’m from North Philadelphia, and I’m 57. I’ve been married for 30 years and have four children. In 1993, I was sentenced to life in prison. I spent 28 years there before I was given clemency in 2021.
I had a difficult upbringing. We were living in the projects, and my mom and father split. My mom was a single mother raising four children. You know the projects, you had to fight to survive. It was a lot of domestic abuse, violence all around us. But my mom created an oasis in our house. That’s why in my poem that I wrote in prison, “A River of Memories,” I have that line, “where joy fell in love with pain.” Even in the most painful of times, my family always found ways to laugh and to have some sort of fun and to be happy.
I learned my most important lessons about life from my mom and my grandma. My mom was always taking people in if they didn’t have anywhere to go, or it was some domestic abuse going on. We took relatives in that stayed with us for years. So when we say “service,” that’s the way I look at it.
My grandma would have us sing these songs. It was fun to us, you know? And she always cooked these great dinners every day. We would sit in the living room and talk for hours. No TV. Later when I was in prison, it was my grandma who told me to stop complaining about it and make the best of it.
I met my wife when I was 17 and she was 16. We lived down the street from each other and we used to hang out with each other all the time. I always joke that she bullied her way into my life because she would come to the house and just stay at the house. Eventually we got married and we had four children. And unfortunately, I went to prison. When I went, I actually told my wife to never send me any money. I said, “Make sure you do whatever you can do to take care of our children.” Because I knew she didn’t have a lot of skills and it was going to be hard. So I didn’t want her spending any money on me, taking food out of my children’s mouth. When I came home, we went through a period where we was trying to find each other again because we’d been away from each other so long. We had to find a rhythm, figure out who we were. I mean, we talked on the phone and had visits, but it’s not the same as when you’re up close and personal every single day with a person.
Freedom comes through service. You actually have to help to carry those who can’t walk for themselves. You have to help bring them forward also. We’re supposed to be together in this.
One thing I didn’t do when I went to prison, I didn’t abdicate my duties as a father. I never relinquished that. I never stopped being dad, even though I was away. So when I came home, it wasn’t as if I had to fight to become dad again. I think that if you go to prison, if you really love your family, you love your children, you love your wife, you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do as a father to make sure that they know that you love them, and that you being in prison does not mean that you’re no longer a part of the family.
When I got out of prison, I saw a lot of people who were just like me — didn’t know who they could be or what they could be. They just didn’t have any idea. So I started stepping out, being involved in the community, seeing that I had a talent for organizing, a talent for communication. I could really talk with people. I started seeing that some of the lessons that I learned growing up were useful and that they made me a better person.
One of my passions is trying to help men that I left behind come home, because I know some of them are probably more deserving than me. I believe there’s men who’ve been in prison for 50 years who should be home because they’re reformed. They’ve put the work in. They’re remorseful. They’ve done everything in their power to redeem themselves. So I think they should be home. And who better to help them to come home than somebody who’s been there with them, who knows what it’s like? Why waste this platform? I need to use it.
But it’s not just people in prison. It’s people out here who have been fighting just to have a decent life. They’ve been trying their best to get somewhere, and nobody’s coming to help them. I think that’s something I should be doing – it’s what we should be doing that for each other, as a community, as neighbors.
Freedom comes through service. You actually have to help to carry those who can’t walk for themselves. You have to help bring them forward also. We’re supposed to be together in this. I run across young people with all this talent. I talk to them, and I’m like, “Wow, he could be so much more than what he thinks he can be!” But he needs somebody to help him. People need somebody to advocate on their behalf. They need somebody to represent them.
You think everything is lost. And then all of a sudden, here you are. Your life is given back to you. And it’s like, “What are you going to do with it?” That to me is a true second chance.
So I’m involved with a lot of things. I work for an organization called Shining Light. I also facilitate Wellness Recovery Plan (WRAP) seminars for Advocates for Human Potential. WRAP is a system of tools and plans to help you live your best life every single day. I helped found the National Justice-Involved Peer Support Council, and I am also a participating member on the Criminal Justice Action Team of HEAL PA, a multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary coalition developed and sponsored by the Pennsylvania governor’s Office of Advocacy and Reform. I conduct monthly seminars on trauma and the prison experience at the Pa. DOC Training Academy in Elizabethtown, Pa., and I am also providing WRAP seminars to several recreation centers and community centers around the city.
And just a little more than a year ago, I was lying in a prison cell, looking at the ceiling thinking “Is this going to ever end?” And here I am. I always thought I was coming home, but I never thought that I would be doing the things that I’m doing now.
I think that freedom is a responsibility. I think that when you find your purpose, that’s when you find your freedom. When you find out what you were meant to do in life, that’s when you find out what freedom is. It’s your community. If you’re not doing anything in your community, then you’re not free. You start doing things helping to promote and helping to build your community up – that is when you truly realize that you’re a free person.
That is what I consider a second chance. You think everything is lost. And then all of a sudden, here you are. Your life is given back to you. And it’s like, “What are you going to do with it?” That to me is a true second chance. When you think your life is lost and life is given back to you. Not because it’s charity, but because of the work that you’ve done.
I found out what my purpose was. My purpose was to leave the world a little bit better than it was when I came into it.
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Listen to Lee get to the heart of what being free means to him: