America's "Longest Juvenile Lifer" Spent 68 Years In Prison. He Was Arrested When He Was Just 15.

America's "Longest Juvenile Lifer" Spent 68 Years In Prison. He Was Arrested When He Was Just 15.

Joe Ligon was released from prison in February this year after serving nearly seven decades for crimes he committed when he was 15.

Cover Image Source: Juvenile-In-Justice

Earlier this year, America's oldest and longest-serving "juvenile lifer," Joe Ligon, was released from prison after serving nearly seven decades for crimes he committed when he was 15. Now, 83 years old, Ligon spoke to BBC World Service about his time in prison, why he waited so long for freedom, and how he plans to spend the rest of his days as a free man. "I've never been alone, but I am a loner. I prefer to be alone as much as I possibly can. Being in prison, I've been in a single cell all this time, from the time of my arrest all the way up until my release," he explained.


"That helps people like me, who want to be alone - I was the type of person, once I went in the cell and closed the door, whatever was going on, I didn't see or hear nothing. When we were allowed to have the radio and TV - that was my company," Ligon added. "I had no friends inside. I had no friends outside. But most people that I associated with… I treated them as though they were a friend. And we were cool, we were alright with each other. But I didn't use that word friend, I learned that that choice of word means a whole lot to a person like me. And a lot of people say that [if you're a] friend… you can be making a big mistake."


"I didn't do too much hanging out. I was the type of person that had one or two friends, that was it for me - I didn't go for crowds," Ligon said. Even on the night he "got into trouble" — February 20, 1953 — he says he didn't really know the people he was with. According to Ligon, he met up with a couple of people he knew casually and while walking around the neighborhood, they bumped into a few others who were drinking. "We started asking people for some money so we could get some more wine and one thing led to another..," he recalled.


Two people died and six were left injured by a stabbing spree that involved Ligon that night. He was the first to be arrested. When the police questioned him, he quite truthfully couldn't tell officers who he had been with that night. "Even the two I did know, I didn't know their names, I knew them by their nicknames," he said. Ligon claims he was taken to a police station far from his home in Rodman Street, where he was held for five days without access to legal help or being able to see his parents when they tried to visit. The then 15-year-old was charged with murder — an accusation he has always denied. However, he has since accepted in an interview that he stabbed one of the victims who survived and has expressed remorse.


"They [the police] started giving us statements to sign, that implicated me in murder. I didn't murder anybody," Ligon said. He faced what was called a degree of guilt hearing, where he admitted to the facts of the case and the judge found him guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. He wasn't in court to hear he had been given mandatory life without parole and went to jail without knowing the full terms of his sentence. "I didn't even know what to ask. I know it's hard to believe but it was the truth," Ligon explained. "I knew I had to do time, but I had no idea I'd be in prison for the rest of my life. I had never even heard the words 'life with parole.'"


Even as prisoner AE 4126, Ligon reportedly never questioned how much time he had left to serve. Over the course of 68 years, he lived in six jails, adapting each time to the routine of prison life. "They wake you up at 6 o'clock by the bullhorn, by the voice, 'stand up for count, everybody, it's count time'… 7 o'clock is meal time, 8 o'clock is work time," Ligon revealed. "I didn't mess with drugs, I didn't drink in jail, I did none of that crazy stuff that causes people to get killed, I didn't try to escape, I didn't give nobody a hard time. I stayed as humble as I possibly could - what prison has taught me along with many other things is mind your business, always try to do what's right, stay away from trouble when it's humanly possible to do."


Ligon's life took a turn when, some 53 years into his sentence, an attorney named Bradley S Bridge came to visit him. "He was not really aware of his sentence," says Bridge, from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "He knew nothing about it until I met with him. It's kind of interesting he had never given up hope - he was completely optimistic, from the very beginning, always expected that something would be done." Five years after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that deemed mandatory life imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional, Ligon was resentenced to 35 years to life.


Although this made him eligible for parole, he rejected the very idea. "I realized that I was being mistreated from the time of my arrest. And I was taught and I learned that it was unconstitutional to be sentenced [as a juvenile] without the possibility of parole," Ligon said. Bridge then challenged the 2017 judgment and took the case to federal court, where the judge ruled in Ligon's favor. "It was like being born all over again. Because everything was new to me - just about everything [changed]," he said of the day he left State Correctional Institution Phoenix in February. As for his future plans, he said: "I'm gonna do the same thing I've been doing my whole life. Give me a job of cleaning, as a janitor."

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