Freedom tasted like China Wok takeout at the Baker home Friday night.
Shrimp fried rice, ribs, fried chicken, canned soda. It was the first meal that Monique Baker, 50, shared with her family after two decades behind bars.
The family joined hands. Baker led them in prayer before they sat down to eat.
Baker had skipped lunch at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution earlier that day. She was determined that a breakfast of toast and a few spoonfuls of grits would be her last meal as a prisoner.
The afternoon before, her sentence of 35 years was undone at a session of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency. Baker was sentenced in 1990 on charges of drug trafficking. With gain time, she was to be released in 2017.
At home Friday night, Baker asked her brother Jay to please pass the hot sauce. Everything was a focus of fascination, including the table china.
"I am eating with a fork, not a spork," Baker observed, childlike, at the family dining table.
Her father asked: "What's a spork?"
• • •
Earlier that evening, Baker looked to the sky as she stepped through the prison door with her parents.
"It's nighttime and I'm outside with the stars and that's something we don't do in prison," Baker told a gathering of reporters who were waiting for her release. "Freedom is a beautiful thing."
Her parents, friends and Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pleaded with the clemency board to release Baker early. They said she fell into a bad crowd as drugs seized control of her life when she was young.
She spent her time in four state prisons: Lowell, Jefferson, Broward and, since May, Hillsborough. Baker had been a model inmate, honing her skills as a paralegal and teaching other inmates. In Hillsborough, she was editor of a newspaper.
The Clemency Board voted unanimously to commute her sentence.
It was a long way from 1990, when Baker was convicted of smuggling $395,000 worth of cocaine from Fort Lauderdale in a rented stretch limousine. At the time, police said Baker, 29, got the idea of using a limo from an episode of Miami Vice. ABC's Primetime Live featured the case, using it "to show the tremendous amount of time and money that goes into prosecuting one person in the war on drugs," the St. Petersburg Times wrote then.
Now, Baker told the group of reporters outside the jail, all she wanted was to go home and take a hot bath. She also was looking forward to a meal and surfing the Internet — something she didn't have access to while in prison.
"That's something I can't wait to get on," she said.
With her freedom, Baker said she plans to help people in situations similar to hers. She and her parents thanked the Clemency Board, Gov. Charlie Crist and Rouson.
"I just want to say, Gov. Crist, I'm going to make you proud," Baker said.
Baker said that while in prison, she was only allowed to hug her mother for short periods at the start and end of visits. Now that she's out, the hugs can be longer.
"It's nice to be able to hug her and not be able to stop," she said.
• • •
She arrived at her childhood home on Kingston Street in Child's Park just before 8 p.m. Again, she peered at the stars in the night sky before stepping through the door.
The last time she was in her home, Robert Ulrich was mayor of St. Petersburg and George H.W. Bush was the president.
Back then, the front of the house was a screened-in porch. Her father has since converted it into a living room.
But some things had not changed.
Her Gibbs High School graduation photo from 1977 still hung on the wall.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]