The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Jailed as an Adolescent for 68 Years

Mar 1, 2021

Joe Ligon, the oldest and longest-serving “juvenile lifer” in the U.S., was released from Phoenix State Prison in Pennsylvania on February 11, 68 years after being locked up.

Ligon, who is 83 years old, was convicted of two murders and sentenced to life without parole when he was 15. Ligon admitted that he stabbed one of the victims who survived, but he has maintained that he did not kill anyone.

Joe Ligon was part of a generation of young people who were brought north by their parents as part of the Great Migration of black people from the rural South to the northern cities in the mid- 20th century. Ligon’s parents were sharecroppers from Alabama, and moved to Philadelphia when Ligon was 13 years old. But what Ligon and his family found in the North was harsh poverty and racism, and life in a poor crime-ridden neighborhood. Like so many other young black men, Joe Ligon dropped out of school early and was illiterate at the time of his conviction.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing minors to life was unconstitutional. It took another four years, and a second Supreme Court ruling, for Pennsylvania to begin to reduce the sentences of its hundreds of juvenile lifers. At the age of 79, and having already spent more than 60 years in prison, Ligon became eligible for parole when he got re-sentenced to 35 years to life.

But Ligon refused to be released on parole. He had seen fellow inmates leave on parole and end up back on the inside on a minor violation—he did not want to be a parolee for the rest of his life. Instead, Ligon continued his legal fight to be free of the claws of Pennsylvania’s “justice system,” on the basis that a life sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile was unconstitutional. And at the age of 83, Ligon finally won his freedom, when in November a federal judge ordered Pennsylvania to either retry Ligon within 90 days or to free him.

Joe Ligon, who worked as a janitor in prison for much of his life, understood that he was not fighting just for himself. In 2016 he said, “I hope I live long enough to see no other youngster treated as I was treated.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of juvenile lifers who have gotten out of prison after the 2012 Supreme Court ruling, only to be on parole for life—that is, one minor infraction, or even just an accusation, away from ending up in prison again.

The legal fight against the notion of juvenile life sentences is part of a bigger, broader fight that the working class has to fight, and win, against this barbaric capitalist system.