In 1992, Larry was just 17 years old when he was arrested, for the first time, and sentenced to die in prison. He spent the next 27 years of his life at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon. Of those, he says the last 8 months — March through November — were the most terrifying for him as COVID-19 wreaked havoc throughout the prison. He received a new sentence and, although he made parole this year, he worried he might not get the chance to walk out of prison. In November 2020, Larry came home, finally free.
YSRP’s Mitigation Specialist, Annie Ruhnke, met Larry at SCI-Huntingdon following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016. This decision offered Larry his first actual chance at coming home, ever. By then, he had been incarcerated for nearly twenty-three years. Larry was one of 40 “Juvenile Lifers” that YSRP was honored to partner with in the wake of the Montgomery decision. Over the next two years, in close partnership with Larry and his longtime attorney Jeremy Gelb, YSRP prepared for his resentencing hearing.
Larry recalls that when he met Annie, she inspired a level of faith in humanity in him that he didn’t know was possible. Having Annie and YSRP invested in him, he says, made him feel like much more than a number, as the system defined him. Knowing that YSRP was there to support him through his resentencing process made Larry feel like he and other Juvenile Lifers had “a team behind us.”
Annie and Larry built a partnership rooted in YSRP’s values of mutual respect and candor that honored Larry’s own life experience. Ultimately, through this partnership, Annie wrote a comprehensive mitigation report that: described Larry’s childhood, and who he was at the time of his arrest at age 17; told the story of his incarceration as a teenager in adult prison, and his transformation into a mature and thoughtful man; and showcased the hard work, commitment and disciplined study that defined his time at SCI-Huntingdon, where he achieved a number of trade certifications, ascended to esteemed leadership roles with several organizations, and strengthened his dedication to his family in spite of the distance and separation. YSRP also presented an actionable reentry plan for Larry to meet his future goals upon his release from prison. It’s the moment that Larry maintained was always possible — and for which he and his family remained forever hopeful.
Through their work together, Annie came to know Larry as a proud father of six children, and seven grandchildren; an uncle to more than 20 or 30 nieces and nephews; a brother, and a son. Larry was especially engaged in his daughter Larrisha’s life from a young age, becoming even more so over time. Larrisha grew up always believing that her father would come home one day.
Larry, too, had always been close with his sister Rosa, whom he says was like a second mother to him. Rosa never missed a Family Day at SCI-Huntingdon in those 27 years, and brought Larry’s mother to visit nearly every month, making the more than 4-hour drive from the Philadelphia area to the prison. In fact, Larry credits Rosa with saving his life on more than one occasion. From birth, Larry has lived with sickle cell anemia. While he learned to manage the day-to-day symptoms of the painful disease in prison, occasional flare-ups would send his body into agonizing, debilitating aches, leaving him fatigued, and alone, in his cell. When these flare-ups occurred, Rosa and other family members would call the prison and “raise hell” to get him the treatment he so needed.
YSRP submitted Larry’s mitigation report and reentry plan to the Court in preparation for his resentencing hearing in June 2018. At his hearing, the judge gave Larry a new sentence of 27 years-to-life, making him eligible to see the Parole Board in the summer of 2020.
For the next two years, Larry used every moment to build himself up, work tirelessly toward his release, and be there for his family. He completed an upholstery apprenticeship, and a certification in construction. Larry was determined to have as many options as possible to work when he got home.
As he had over the years, Larry also maintained close connection with his family. He constantly encouraged his nieces and nephews to study hard and work toward their dreams. Larry inspired one of his nephews to study music engineering; he has since received a college degree in it, and now has his own recording studio. One of Larry’s nieces told him, when she was 15, that she wanted to be a doctor. Whenever he would speak with her over the years, he called her “Doctor.” Today, she is a doctor. Larry also has nieces who are psychiatrists and psychologists, whom he encouraged over the years to visualize, and be, their future success.
Annie kept in close touch with Larry, and introduced him to John Pace, then YSRP’s Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) Reentry Coordinator, to work in partnership to finetune his reentry plan as his potential homecoming neared. Larry’s first chance to meet with the Parole Board, and get a date to come home, would be in July 2020.
“It was a very terrifying experience.”
In March 2020, news about COVID-19 was breaking around the country and the world. SCI-Huntingdon, the oldest prison in Pennsylvania, went on full lockdown later that month as a precautionary measure to prevent potential exposure to the virus inside. Prisons and other institutional settings struggled to contain outbreaks where residents could not take the recommended precautions to keep themselves safe, such as wearing masks, or social distancing. Because Larry lives with sickle cell anemia, he is considered “high risk” for contraction of, and developing serious complications related to, COVID-19.
Throughout the spring and summer, Larry and the nearly 1,700 other men incarcerated at SCI-Huntingdon were confined to their cells for more than 22 hours each day, only being allowed out, very rarely, for showers. All in-person visits were suspended indefinitely; and phone calls to loved ones were not allowed for long stretches at a time.
Trying to survive this initial lockdown, Larry says, was “a very terrifying experience.” Quickly, six men at SCI-Huntingdon died from complications of the virus, two of whom were very close to Larry. Without access to the outside world (through phone calls and visits), access to information about the virus and how to stay protected was scant. As Larry says, the shared fear was palpable.
Larry and 20 men close to him quickly pooled their resources to buy what supplies they could from the prison commissary: Tylenol, cough syrup and green tea. Without information or access to personal protective equipment, Larry and the other men on his block knew they needed to take care of one another if they got sick, because no one else would.
The shared fear showed up even in men with the toughest exteriors. Without a lifeline to the outside world — access to phone calls — none of the men were able to check on their loved ones, or find out if they were sick, or in the hospital. Cases inside the prison spread furiously, and information about what was happening inside was slow to reach the public. Larry describes hearing men coughing — 50 or more men on the block — and the rush of fear that would follow, of not knowing who might get walked off the block, and possibly not return.
It was only when correctional officers started to display symptoms and get sick that the men who were incarcerated at SCI-Huntingdon received masks and hand sanitizer. Testing was very limited and appeared to be preserved only for prisoners who were actively struggling with COVID-19. The racism, the callousness and utter disregard for human life that correctional officers displayed toward prisoners during the lockdown, Larry says, is something he will never forget.
On April 10, 2020, Governor Wolfe declared a Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration, intended to decarcerate prisons to reduce the spread of the virus. Because he fell squarely in a “high risk” category, and he had only three months remaining before he could go in front of the Parole Board, Larry seemed a prime candidate to receive such reprieve, and come home early.
Annie, YSRP and Larry’s attorney Jeremy Gelb stepped into action to advocate on Larry’s behalf to pursue this and other possible avenues for early release, learning quickly to navigate a changing and opaque landscape within the Department of Corrections to get Larry home. In spite of these efforts, the Governor did not grant Larry a reprieve. In fact, of the 40,000 men and women who are incarcerated in state prisons across Pennsylvania, only 108 people have received a reprieve, and only 1 of those 108 people was at SCI-Huntingdon.
The Department of Corrections repeatedly told Larry that he had only a few more months to go, and that before he knew it, he’d be home. They never considered the very real possibility Larry lived with then — that he could die on their watch.
In this time, Annie and John were able to speak to Larry by phone, although the prison’s rules about phone usage constantly shifted while it remained under strict quarantine measures. When they were able to speak, Annie and John prepared him for his Parole hearing. Larry would have the opportunity to ask John about his own Parole process and what he might expect, as well as how best to prepare himself for his hoped-for return to Philadelphia. In mid-June, SCI-Huntingdon began to open up more. In July, at long last, Larry was granted parole, and his release date was set for November.
As his homecoming day approached, Larry was placed in a 5-day quarantine unit, capping his 9,855 days of incarceration. On November 24th, just in time for Thanksgiving, Larry finally came home.
Larry celebrated his first Thanksgiving with family since he was a teenager, with his daughter Larrisha, and her children. Larry has been surrounded by family since coming home, catching up on lost time. And, he feels lucky to be healthy and strong.
Larry’s heart is, and always has been, in music. Larry is a songwriter and producer and, in just over two weeks of freedom, he has set up a full recording studio, and incorporated his record label, ArKine Music Group, as an LLC. To pay the bills, he just started a job in HVAC installation and repairs, and has plans to produce a podcast, with some 116 episode topics currently percolating in his mind.
When asked how he has been enjoying his freedom, Larry says: “I’m in the moment right now — I’m grateful for everything. The moment in itself is so monumental, that I’m complete.”
Larry is a true survivor, and a leader to his core. He is thoroughly entrepreneurial, and has boundless love for his family. Annie, John and the whole YSRP team are grateful to share in the joy of Larry’s homecoming, and we know that his determination and drive will position him for greatness in this world. Photos provided courtesy of Larry.