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YSRP and Philadelphia Welcome Home Mr. Joe Ligon, the Nation’s Longest-Serving Juvenile Lifer, after 68 Years of Incarceration

Mr. Joe Ligon in West Philadelphia on February 12, 2021. Photo credit: Johnny Myers.

On February 11, 2021, after 68 years of incarceration, Mr. Joe Ligon took his first steps as a free man, at the age of 83. As reporter Karen Heller writes in the Washington Post, Mr. Ligon “broke every unenviable record,” as the nation’s oldest, and longest-serving, Juvenile Lifer. He entered prison at just 15 years old in 1953, with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

When he became eligible to receive a new sentence and potentially leave prison, as a result of the US Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, he was adamant that he did not want to be on parole – ever.

Mr. Ligon’s attorney, Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia — a longtime partner of YSRP, and a member of our Advisory Board — and mitigation specialist Billi Charron, honored Mr. Ligon’s steadfast determination. They brilliantly advocated with, and litigated for, Mr. Ligon for years to ensure he would be freed on his own terms.

Exactly two weeks to the day that YSRP celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Montgomery decision with many of Philadelphia’s former Juvenile Lifers, Mr. Ligon finally got the chance to live his self-determined vision of freedom.

From left: Eleanor Myers, Joe Ligon and John Pace in West Philadelphia on February 12, 2021. Photo credit: Johnny Myers.

YSRP Reentry Coordinator John Pace and Senior Advisor Eleanor Myers have partnered closely with Mr. Ligon and his legal team to prepare for his return to Philadelphia. Coordinating with over 10 city agencies, Eleanor worked to secure housing for Mr. Ligon with a Domiciliary Care family, and is helping to coordinate his enrollment in benefits programs (like Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps).

She is also working to meet other immediate needs, such as arranging Mr. Ligon’s phone, clothing, and making sure he has his key identification documents, such as his Social Security card, PA ID, and birth certificate.

With her, John Pace is making sure Mr. Ligon is comfortable in his new neighborhood, and connecting Mr. Ligon with the community of former Juvenile Lifers who are now home in Philadelphia. While John says he can’t pretend to know Mr. Ligon’s experience of coming home after 68 years of incarceration, he is drawing on his own experience of returning to Philadelphia four years ago, after 31 years of incarceration.

From left: John Pace, Joe Ligon and Michael “Smokey” Wilson in Philadelphia on February 14, 2021.

In the days since his release, John is taking it slowly with Mr. Ligon and supporting him to incrementally take in his new environment, and not try to figure it all out in one day. He is settling Mr. Ligon’s nerves by helping him be around familiar people, and slowly introducing him to new things.

While drawing on his own reentry experience, John is leading with our model of client-partnership, and honoring what Mr. Ligon tells him that he wants. Together, John and Eleanor are navigating Mr. Ligon’s reentry with him as partners, as he settles into this next phase of his life.

YSRP was co-founded in 2014 by Joanna Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine to end the prosecution of children in the adult criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Part of their vision for launching YSRP stems from meeting Mr. Ligon at what was then the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, over ten years ago, as a 73-year-old man who entered prison as a child.

Joe Ligon and John Pace in West Philadelphia on February 12, 2021. Photo credit: Johnny Myers.

For John Pace to be free, and now a member of the team working to support Mr. Ligon in his reentry, is a profound expression of both his and Mr. Ligon’s full humanity, deep resilience and transformative vision for justice.

At YSRP, we applaud Mr. Ligon for exerting his agency and living his self-determined liberation. His remarkable story and struggle, a rare combination of injustice and hope, may just carve a path for others to be unconstrained by State parole supervision. That will be a new day for the many other men and women in Pennsylvania seeking such freedom after far too many years of incarceration.

Many individuals have reached out to express interest in supporting Mr. Ligon as he navigates his reentry. We are tremendously grateful for this generosity of spirit. Please note: At this time, Mr. Ligon’s legal team and family are exploring the best options for making donations to support Mr. Ligon. If you would like to receive an update regarding how to make direct contributions to Mr. Ligon in the near future, please complete this form, and someone will get back to you as we have more information.

Mr. Ligon’s story of coming home has garnered both national and international media attention from outlets such as, Washington Post, CNN, The Inquirer, and many others. Click below to read more coverage of Mr. Ligon’s story, and YSRP’s partnership with him.

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