Joseph Ligon grew up on a farm in Alabama and left school in the third or fourth grade. He was illiterate when he was arrested.
The justice system doesn't always work and 83-year-old Joseph Ligon is proof of that. He was only 15 when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1953 for taking part in multiple robberies and assaults with a group of drunk teens in Philadelphia. The crimes caused the death of two people; however, Joseph claims that he didn't kill anyone. He was the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the country.
Joseph ended up spending 68 years behind bars even though the Supreme Court had ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences imposed on juveniles were constituted cruel and unusual punishment and were thus unconstitutional, as per Daily Mail. However, Pennsylvania had refused to reduce the life sentences. In 2016, the court ordered states to retroactively reduce the sentences of those with life sentences given to them when they were juveniles.
Then, Pennsylvania resentenced Joseph and almost 500 "juvenile lifers" to reduced prison terms with lifetime parole. In 2017, he had the chance to apply for parole but he didn't accept it. "I like to be free," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "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," he said.
Joseph, 83, grew up on a farm in Alabama and left school in the third or fourth grade. His family was poor and when he was 13, his parents sent him to school in Philadelphia but he couldn't stay there either. He was illiterate when he was arrested at age 15. Later, he also rejected educational offerings in prison. "I’m just a stubborn type of person," he said. "I was born that way," he added. He was considered an outsider even in school.
But he didn't shy away from working hard. He learned to have pride in his janitorial skills. Eventually, he learned to read and write while in prison, where he also trained as a boxer. He still has a military-style workout regimen even though he's struggling with arthritis. The 83-year-old never applied for commutation, even though his chances were high at getting clemency in the 1970s. Hundreds of Pennsylvania lifers were released back then.
He put his faith in his lawyer until he could be released. He wanted to stay abreast with the changes in the world and kept watching a small TV in his cell. "I like my chances," he said Thursday. "I really like my chances in terms of surviving."
Bradley Bridge, a public defender, has represented Joseph since 2006. He went to federal court to ask for his client's release. "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.
Finally, in November 2020, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office accepted his motion and ordered that Joseph either be resentenced or released within 90 days. He was released from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County. "That was no sad day for me," said the 83-year-old.
Bridge says that Joseph's case shows how "we waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating." He added, "His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each."
The 83-year-old moved out of the prison and into his new home which was possible because the community rallied for him. John Pace, a former juvenile lifer and now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), helped him find housing, clothes, and a phone. He would have to be inducted back into society slowly. "He’s been locked up so long, everything changed," said John.
The 83-year-old moved with a dozen large file boxes, which was almost 10 more than what was permitted. "I’m a special guy," said Joseph.