Parole Is Better Than Prison. But That Doesn’t Mean I’m Free.

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The Marshall Project on 5/13/2021 by Abd’allah Lateef

At age 17, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. I got out due to Supreme Court decisions, but there was one catch: Parole for the rest of my life.

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.