Ligon was sentenced to life in prison at the young age of 15. He was released in 2021, following a tedious legal battle.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2021. It has since been updated.
There is no doubt that the prison system in the United States is archaic and unjust. For evidence of that, we must look no further than America's juvenile "lifers," that is, children under the age of 18 who are sentenced to life in prison without parole. Oftentimes, these individuals do not see the world outside until they are senior citizens. Joe Ligon was a juvenile lifer. He was sentenced to prison when he was 15 years old and last saw daylight when Dwight Eisenhower had wrapped up his first month as President. Ligon was finally released from Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Phoenix in 2021 after a tough trial fought by Bradley Bridge, Ligon’s attorney since 2006. The longest-serving juvenile lifer in the country, he was 83 years old at the time of his release, ABC News reports.
Ligon moved north to the state of Philadelphia when he was 13 years old. He joined a new school in the city, but could not keep up with his classmates. Two years on, he was described as "illiterate" when he joined a group of teens on a night that would forever change all their lives. On this particular night, February 20, 1953, he and four other teenagers were arrested for first-degree murder, assault, and other related charges for a string of knife attacks that killed two men and injured another six. The boys, the police claimed, were part of a new gang known as the "Head Hunters."
Two of the boys went to trial whereas Ligon and the remaining two teenagers plead guilty. In December that year, he was sentenced to two mandatory terms of life in prison without parole. To date, Ligon has maintained that he did take part in the attacks that night but did not kill anyone. Authorities, on the other hand, named him as the person who stabbed all eight victims. According to federal court papers, however, Ligon stabbed only one victim, who survived the assault.
In prison, Ligon learned to read and write. He also learned how to box and stayed up to date with current events through a small television he was allowed to keep in his cell. He expected to spend his whole adult life in jail, until a 2012 Supreme Court ruling.
Joe Ligon is free after 68 yrs in prison. Since 1953.— Laura Nirider (@LauraNirider) February 12, 2021
What he’s missed: Elvis. Rosa Parks. Brown v Board. McDonald’s. Interstate highways. Rock & roll. The moon landing. Alaska & Hawaii becoming states. Tie dye, bellbottoms, acid wash.
& his whole life. https://t.co/DHXK7Oo0n1
The ruling deemed mandatory life imprisonment for juveniles unconstitutional. Yet, the state of Philadelphia refused to apply the ruling to juvenile inmates who were already in prison. But four years later, a second ruling forced the state to comply. This meant that over 500 inmates convicted as juveniles, including Ligon, had to be resentenced. In 2017, he was therefore resentenced to 35 years to life. At this point, he was eligible for parole, but he rejected the very idea. "I like to be free," he said in an interview with 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." Although many individuals tried to coax him out of prison several times, he simply refused to apply for parole. He did not sign up for any required programs either.
That year, Bridge appealed the new sentence, arguing that the maximum penalty contained within Ligon’s new sentence remained unconstitutional, despite the minimum of 35 years. He wrote, "It is unconstitutional because 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." The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office supported the appeal and ordered for Ligon to be resentenced within 90 days or released from all custody, including parole.
A Black man sentenced to life at 15 was released after 68 years, reports @PhillyInquirer. Joe Ligon is now 83.— AJ+ (@ajplus) February 15, 2021
He was sentenced in 1953 by an all-white judge panel in Pennsylvania for a robbery in which 2 people died, but denied a role in the killings.
(Photo: @juvenileinjust) pic.twitter.com/MXkOJcY2dn
Upon his release, Ligon was placed with a family in Philadelphia that takes in newly-released inmates. However, he hopes to move to New Jersey in order to live with his sister and niece. Meanwhile, Bridge affirmed, "We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating. His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each. Hopefully, his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a reevaluation of the way we incarcerate people." And the 83-year-old is hopeful. "I like my chances," he said. "I really like my chances in terms of surviving."