Imagine unjustly spending your entire adult life in jail to finally be released into a world that you barely recognize at 80 years old. This is the reality for Joseph Lignon, who, after spending 68 years in prison, saw a real-life skyscraper for the first time this year. He is the oldest juvenile lifer in America — and he’s finally free. (1)
Oldest Juvenile Lifer Freed After 68 Years In Prison
68 years in prison is a long time to spend behind bars. This is especially true when you are put there at just 15 years old. Joseph Lignon, America’s oldest juvenile lifer, got caught up with the wrong people when he was just a young kid. (1)
In 1953, Lignon participated in a string of robberies and assaults with a group of young teens that left two people dead. Though he did admit to stabbing some people, he didn’t actually kill anyone. Despite that, the courts sentenced him to life in prison before he was even old enough to drive a car. (2)
“I got caught up, in terms of being in the streets,” he told CNN. (2)
Finally, on February 11 of this year, after great work by his attorney, Lignon was set free. Of course, the world he entered is drastically different from the one he knew when he was just a young teenager. (1)
No Parole for Lignon
In the 1970s, he was offered clemency along with his accomplices. Unlike the rest, however, Lignon wanted full freedom or none at all, and clemency meant parole. He turned down the offer. (1)
In another case involving a juvenile in 2012, the courts decided that a life sentence without the potential for parole is unlawful for juvenile offenses. They decided to apply this new rule retroactively to all juvenile offenders, reducing Lignon’s sentence to 35 years and therefore making him eligible for parole yet again. For the same reasons as before, however, he turned it down. (2)
“I like to be free,” he explained. “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.” (3)
Lignon’s attorney, Bradley Bridge, fought to have Lignon released as a free man for 15 years. (1)
“The child that committed those crimes back in 1953 no longer exists. The person that came out of prison in 2021 is 83 years old, has grown, changed, and is no longer a threat,” he said. “He has amply repaid society for the damage and harm that he did. And now, it’s appropriate that he spends the last years of his life in freedom.” (2)
In November of 2020, that freedom was finally granted. The court ruled that Lignon would finally be granted his freedom in 2021 at the age of 83. (1)
68 Years in Prison and a Reintroduction Into The World
Naturally, after 68 years in prison, the world has changed an incredible amount. In 1953, there weren’t even cordless phones, let alone smartphone technology. The city that he knew was different, too – the buildings were taller, with skyscrapers towering all around him.
Reentering society is tough for any former inmate, particularly one who is 83 years old and has spent his entire adult life behind bars. Most of the people from Lignon’s life before prison are no longer here – either they’ve moved far away, or they passed away. (1)
He is working closely with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP) in Philadelphia. YSRP senior advisor Eleanor Myers describes Lignon as cheerful and in awe of the city’s changes since 1953, particularly all the skyscrapers that didn’t exist before. (1)
“He has talked about those in his family who are gone and cannot be together for his homecoming. He seems to miss them especially,” she says. “There is a large community of juvenile lifers who knew Joe for many years in prison. They will undoubtedly become his new circle of friends and supporters.” (1)
Reentry Coordinators and Programs Make All the Difference
His reentry coordinator John Pace, who is also a former juvenile lifer, has been with him every step of the way. He is introducing Lignon to everything that has changed since 1953 slowly. He says it helps to surround him with people he is familiar with to settle his nerves and complex emotions. (2)
“I’m looking at all the tall buildings. This is all new to me. This never existed,” says Lignon. (3)
The Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services is paying for his first year in the care program. The YSRP is doing everything they can to make sure that he has a smooth transition, and is able to live out his remaining years in peace. (1)
Despite the challenges he faces being thrust into a new century with new technology and societal values, he is happy to be free and is optimistic for his future. (1)
“I’m really looking forward to pleasing people and help people the way they’re helping me, meeting some of the younger generation, with some of the older generation, and some of the reporters … to share some of my story.” he said. (2)
Bridge says that Lignon is a prime example of the problem of over-incarceration in America.
“We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating,” he said. “Hopefully his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a re-evaluation of the way we incarcerate people.” (1)
- “EXCLUSIVE: America’s oldest juvenile lifer, 83, who walked free after 68 years in prison is ‘amazed’ by skyscrapers but is also mourning family members who have died since he was convicted of murder at 15.” Daily Mail. Megan Sheets. February 2021.
- “After 68 years in prison, America’s oldest juvenile lifer was released.” CNN. Heather Law, Evan Simko-Bednarski. February 2021.
- “America’s Oldest Juvenile Lifer Is a Black Man Who Was Released in Philadelphia After 68 Years in Prison.” The Root. Zack Linly. February 2021.