I’ve yet to read a story about someone in or recently released from prison that hasn’t made me absolutely infuriated, and the most recent case is that of Joe Ligon. Ligon was only 15 years old—a child—when he was sentenced to life in prison for participating in a few types of harm in which two people died, though he didn’t directly contribute to their deaths. In 1953 when Ligon was sentenced, the average cost of a house was $9,550, Eisenhower was inaugurated, and the first color TVs went on sale. Since then, Ligon has never seen the outside of a prison cell. As the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in America, he lost his mother, father, and brother while within the walls of Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County. On Thursday after 68 years, Ligon took his first steps into freedom when he was released and visited his attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Along with over 500 other incarcerated people in Pennsylvania who were juveniles sentenced to life terms, he was re-sentenced to terms contingent on lifetime parole and received 35 years to life in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled automatic life terms for kids are cruel and unusual. And even though he’d already been in prison for decades at that point, he refused to apply for parole for take any recommended programs because, he said, “I like to be free. With parole, you got to see the parole people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.” Ligon’s public defender Bradley Bridge fought for years for his client’s release with time served. He argued in court that Ligon’s life sentence was unconstitutional, because, according to his quote in an article by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “‘The constitution requires that the entire sentence, both the minimum and maximum terms imposed on a juvenile, be individualized — and a one size fits all cannot pass constitutional muster,’ he wrote. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed. And, on Nov. 13, 2020, Anita B. Brody, senior U.S. District judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ordered Ligon resentenced or released within 90 days.” On Thursday, those 90 days Brody ordered were up, so Ligon was free to walk out of the prison walls for the first time. “I’m looking at all the tall buildings,” he said. “This is all new to me. This never existed.” Now at 83 years old, it’s most likely that none of the people Ligon knew before prison are alive.
It would be incomplete to discuss the irrationality and cruelty of Ligon’s prison sentence without mentioning how he grew up in a low income household on a farm where he couldn’t read or write. Ligon lived with his family in Alabama and he never excelled past fourth grade because of his stress being in large groups of people—a situation that could’ve been catered to had he had the resources. Instead, he struggled greatly in the school years he attended and was illiterate when he was arrested. Poor people and especially poor Black people have been disproportionately impacted by harsh and severe sentencings, especially in regard to juvenile life sentencings. Studies have shown that human brains aren’t fully developed until the age of 25, but 26 states still sentence children to life for committing harm. If, according to scientific studies, we know that children are unable to use critical thinking skills to make important decisions, why is it that they are still held accountable on terms so grim they’d be equal to that of adults? Danielle Sered, author of Until We Reckon and founder and director of Common Justice in New York City says “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it.” This statement is true particularly when we acknowledge that people incarcerated for harm have most likely experienced something similar prior to their own hurtful actions. The Sentencing Project notes that according to a 2012 survey they took of people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, “79% witnessed violence in their homes regularly, 32% grew up in public housing, 40% had been enrolled in special education classes, fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense, 47% were physically abused, 80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse, and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.” And when it comes to the disparity in sentencings according to race, “While 23.2% of juvenile arrests for murder involve an African American suspected of killing a white person, 42.4% of JLWOP sentences are for an African American convicted of this crime. White juvenile offenders with African American victims are only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JWLOP sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing an African American (6.4%).”
Ligon has been caged for nearly quadruple the number of years he lived prior to incarceration. He was a literal child when the state sentenced him to life in prison, which is no better than a death sentence. Advocates for the ending of state and federal executions must include the abolition of sentences of life without parole because they are equally as torturous and heinous and of no use to the ‘betterment of society.’ America stole Joe Ligon’s entire life and the lives of his family members. His mother, father, and brother never got to watch him grow up outside of a penitentiary visiting room or in regular clothes. He lost everyone he loves while he sat in a cell and is now outside of prison with no money, family members, or applicable life experiences according to the world he’s walking into. Thankfully, a few of Ligon’s formerly incarcerated friends and legal supporters will be there to support him and help him adjust to America in 2021, but the road forward will still be unspeakably hard for him. It’s impossible to read Ligon’s story and look at his old, soft eyes and whitened hair and not hate what America is and how this country incarcerates people and steals their lives. How could anyone see him and believe that any type of sentence, especially juvenile life terms, are acceptable? Joe Ligon’s story only pushes me more toward the abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex and every related characteristic of America, including the country itself, if we want to see true justice prevail. Joe Ligon deserves to spend the rest of his life without worry or hardship, focusing only on being healthy and happy and safe. He deserves a life of tenderness, love, and compassion, and I hope that’s exactly what he receives.