About Us Contact Us Privacy Policy
GOOD Worldwide Inc. publishing
© GOOD Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.

America's longest juvenile lifer spent 68 years in prison. He was just 15 when he was arrested.

Joseph Ligon didn't learn the full terms of his sentence until he spent at least 50 years in prison.

America's longest juvenile lifer spent 68 years in prison. He was just 15 when he was arrested.
Image source: Instagram/@juvenileinjustice

Joseph Ligon is America's 'longest juvenile lifer,' having spent close to seven decades behind bars. He was jailed at the age of 15 before being released at the age of 83 from Pennsylvania prison for his role in a string of robberies and assaults. Ligon was with five other teenagers and the group knifed eight men, with two of them dying in the assault. Ligon is now opening about his years in jail and how he longed for freedom. "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," said Ligon, reported BBC. "That helps people like me, who want to be alone — I was the type of person." 


He was the country's oldest juvenile lifer at the time of sentencing. He had admitted to having a hand in the crimes along with a group of drunk teens but said he didn't kill anyone, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. Ligon pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in Philadelphia in 1953 but said that he was scapegoated as he an out-of-towner. Looking back at his time in the prison, Ligon says he was lonely in his cell but it was something he had made peace with. "I had no friends inside. I had no friends outside," said Ligon. 



Ligon said he was the quiet type even while growing up. He didn't have many friends while growing up in the country, at his maternal grandparents in Birmingham, Alabama. Some of his memories from his early days include watching his grandfather preach in a local church. He recalls good times with his family during his childhood but said that he didn't really have any friends. His family moved to the deep south to Philadelphia when he was 13 and he found it hard in school and dropped out. He eventually learned to read and write in prison. "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," said Ligon. 


When Ligon got involved in the knifing incident on a Friday evening in 1953, it was uncharacteristic of him. he didn't know the people he was hanging out with. He met up with a few people and walked around the neighborhood, bumping into people who were drinking. At the end of the night, two people died and six were injured. He was first to be arrested and couldn't tell the cops the names of the people he was with, cause he didn't know, said Ligon. "I knew them by their nicknames." He was denied legal help and his parents were not allowed to visit him, said Ligon. He still maintains he didn't kill anybody. "They [the police] started giving us statements to sign, that implicated me in murder. I didn't murder anybody," said Ligon.



The then 15-year-old didn't know the terms of his sentence as he wasn't in court at the time. He had been sentenced to mandatory life without parole but he never really thought about it. He assumed he'd some time in jail before being released. "I didn't even know what to ask. I know it's hard to believe but it was the truth," said Ligon. He was confused but not scared. The thing that really bothered him was about being away from his family. He ended up living in six jails over 68 years. He worked mostly as a janitor during his time in jail. "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," said Ligon. "What prison has taught me is mind your business."


He got his break after Supreme Court ruled, in 2012, that mandatory life sentences imposed on juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment and were therefore deemed unconstitutional. Thus, Ligon became eligible for a new sentence in November 2016. He was contacted by Bradley S. Bridge, a lawyer. "He was not really aware of his sentence," said Bridge, from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "I realized that I was being mistreated from the time of my arrest," said Ligon. He was initially offered 50 years to life in prison, which made him immediately eligible for parole. Joseph Ligon declined the offer and said he wanted to experience freedom in full. "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,” said Ligon.

More Stories on Scoop