On the morning of Feb. 11, 2021, while residents of Philadelphia braced themselves for a winter storm, 83-year-old Joe Ligon prepared to take his first steps into the streets where he was arrested nearly seven decades earlier.
After participating in a spree of robberies and assaults that resulted in two deaths, Joe was convicted of murder in 1953, at age 15. At 16, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He went on to serve 67 years, 11 months, two weeks and five days in a half dozen facilities, including what was once known as the Pennsylvania Institution for Defective Delinquents. This made him the longest serving prisoner in the country.
Joe could have been released four years earlier — if he was willing to spend the rest of his life on parole. The Supreme Court had struck down automatic life without parole for juveniles in 2012, and the court made it retroactive in 2016. Under those decisions, Joe was re-sentenced to 35-years-to-life in 2017. Given that he had already served 65 years, he was automatically eligible for a parole hearing. But instead of living under the constraints of parole supervision, he chose to stay in prison and pursue legal recourse in hopes that one day he could leave truly free.
Joe’s decision surprised me. As someone who was sentenced to life without parole at age 17, I knew firsthand the daily struggle to survive the monotony of prison. (My sentence was the result of my participation in an unarmed robbery during which the victim was shoved to the ground and suffered a fractured femur. The man died of congestive heart failure 18 days later, after undergoing surgery for the fracture.)
Before I found out why Joe refused release, I thought of Brooks Hatlen, a character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” who becomes parole eligible after 50 years of imprisonment. In a dramatic scene that plays out days before his release, Brooks holds a knife to a fellow prisoner’s throat in an effort to sabotage his own freedom.
While Joe did nothing as drastic as Brooks, many in the Pennsylvania prison system still assumed that he refused parole because he was afraid to leave. After all, when he went inside, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the Korean War was just ending. By the time Joe was resentenced, he’d become a rather frail 80-year-old who had been banished from society for more than six decades.
But then I heard Joe, in rather blunt terms, express his unwillingness to accept any parole supervision. I remember him saying, “I already served enough time.” It was clear that Joe was as desperate to be free as any of the nearly 3,000 prisoners in the United States who were sentenced to life without parole as children. Living the precious remaining years of his life under parole supervision was simply untenable.
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