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.
In July 2017, I faced the same choice as Joe. I was resentenced to a term of 30-to-life. Since I had already served 31 years, I was immediately eligible for parole. That October, after a successful parole hearing, I walked out of the State Correctional Facility at Frackville a nominally free man.
When I left prison uncuffed and unshackled, my eyes were brimming with tears of joy and gratitude. Still, a part of me felt a strong sense of indignation that I would have to be on parole for the remainder of my life. For a split second, I wondered if I should have stood in solidarity with Joe. But parole or no parole, I couldn’t fathom staying in prison a minute longer than I had to. I desperately needed to experience life beyond steel bars, electrified fences and 24-hour surveillance. And of course, there were loved ones who had a stake in my release.
Supervision is as intrusive and demeaning as I had heard it was when I worked as a paralegal assisting clients who were reimprisoned after their parole was revoked. Parole comes with an endless list of prohibitions against the most innocuous human behaviors. There are the frequent, random drug and alcohol tests that I pay for out of pocket, although I haven’t used either in over three decades. I have to get permission from my parole agent to change my employment. I also need special permission to travel for work or leisure or to move into a new apartment or house. Wherever I live, I am subject to random, unwarranted searches of my home. And there are restrictions on who I can associate with and the establishments I can patronize. I even have to notify my parole agent of any medications I’m taking, including herbal supplements, allergy pills and cold medicine.
Does this sound like freedom to you? To me, it sounds like living life as a permanent ward of the state. And this is what Joe Ligon set out to avoid.
While Joe and I served about 10 years in the same prison, I didn’t know him well; he kept to himself. But recently, he shared what was on his mind when he was released for good. “When I got out, I had a big smile on my face; free at last!” he said. “I saw others going back because of parole violations, but I was never going back!”
While I didn’t make the same choice as Joe, I understand it. Rather than dismissing his decision as the stubborn antics of a feeble-minded old man, I see his unwillingness to subjugate himself to the indignities of parole as the courageous sacrifice of an elder. I see it as an indictment against a system of which these questions are rarely asked: Who gets placed on parole? For how long? To what end?
After nearly 68 years in prison, Joe knows that to live truly free is to live with dignity. And I am extremely happy that he will spend his final years in the most dignified manner possible. I believe every person who was sentenced to life as a child and is now serving lifetime parole due to an arbitrary policy choice should have the same opportunity to experience this dignity.
Abd’Allah W. Lateef serves as senior strategist and racial equity specialist at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.