Olivia Cal, a founding member of Communities and Relatives of Illinois’ Incarcerated Children, passed away on October 27 following a brief illness. Olivia advocated for children and families caught in the criminal legal system for nearly 30 years. She visited Springfield several times a year to push for legislative change, helped send hundreds of holiday cards to incarcerated people, and supported others dealing with extreme sentences. Last year, for the first time after almost three decades, Olivia hugged her son outside of prison walls.
In 1992, at the age of 17, her son, Cedric, received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cedric wasn’t even old enough to vote when the legal system condemned him to die in prison. Olivia shared her story during Stories of Second Chances earlier this year.
Almost 20 years after Cedric’s conviction, Olivia became one of the first members of a group of mothers convened by Northwestern University School of Law’s Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children. “I felt so alone and that I didn’t know that anybody else hurt like I hurt, felt the pain that I felt, until I got involved with these women here,” Olivia said about the group, which is now known as CRIIC.
Olivia and her peers became deeply connected as they supported one another through years of hardship. Cruel, punitive sentencing law had denied their children any chance of redemption. When CRIIC first formed, these mothers thought they would never see their children free again. But, in 2012, the US Supreme Court declared life without parole sentences for youth unconstitutional. “What a joy. What a joy. What a joy,” Olivia said about that decision, Miller v. Alabama. “It felt like another chance.”
While Miller v. Alabama provided relief for some, it did not provide a real opportunity for release for all 103 Illinoisans who received life without parole as children. Cedric remained incarcerated for eight years following the Miller decision.
But in early 2020, Cedric and his legal team—led by Shobha Mahadev at the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Children—submitted a petition for clemency, which Governor JB Pritzker granted in July 2020. After 28 years of only seeing her son in prison clothes, Olivia greeted him outside Hill Correctional Center. Cedric’s freedom gave Olivia the chance to share birthday celebrations, community meetings, and holidays.
Even with her own family reunification, Olivia continued advocating for others! Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Restore Justice took a bus to Springfield several times a year. Olivia was often the first on board, ready to work for policy change. In August of this year, she joined State Representative Robyn Gabel, State Senator Laura Fine, and the entire Restore Justice team in celebration of the passage of a new law to create a family point of contact within the Illinois Department of Corrections to prevent other mothers from enduring the treatment she had suffered over decades.
“I always have been a drum major for justice,” Olivia said during Stories of Second Chances. “I will continue to fight for justice. In every area of my life, I seek justice.”
Olivia has joined her sister, Dorothy Harrison, who passed away last November. Both Olivia and Dorothy wrote and visited Cedric and many other men who they became mothers to. “She will be missed by so many,” said Restore Justice’s Outreach Director Julie Anderson, the coordinator of CRIIC. Cedric described his mother as, “my world, my prayer warrior, and my queen.” Olivia also had two other sons, Steven and Davy, and beamed with pride when she talked about the three of them.