Oldest Juvenile Lifer, 82-Year-Old Man, Released from Prison After Nearly Seven Decades

Oldest Juvenile Lifer, 82-Year-Old Man, Released from Prison After Nearly Seven Decades

Joe Ligon
Image: Philadelphia Department of Correction

Joe Ligon was finally released from prison after serving 68 years. Ligon, now 82, is the country’s oldest juvenile lifer in the United States.

“We waste people’s lives by over-incarcerating and we waste money by over-incarcerating. His case graphically demonstrates the absurdity of wasting each,” Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, told The Philadephia Inquirer. “Hopefully his release, and the release of the juvenile lifers in general, will cause a reevaluation of the way we incarcerate people.”

Bradley has represented Ligon since 2006. On Thursday morning, the lawyer picked Ligon up from the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County to take him to his new home.

From Philadelphia School to Prison

Ligon was just a teenager in the 1950s. The world was in a period of civil unrest, battling the impacts of discrimination and segregation. There was also an influx of African Americans who moved from the South to the North. Ligon, a young boy raised on a farm in Alabama, found himself in the Philadelphia school system in the early 1950s at the age of 13.

This was before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which officially declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Many of the Black schools in Philadelphia and around the country experienced the impacts of educational inequity.  Ligon, a young boy without a solid education, was left behind in the system. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ligon “couldn’t keep up” and was still illiterate at the age of 15.

With the growing levels of poverty, unemployment, abandoned buildings, and racial division, Ligon found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was involved in a series of robberies and assaults that left two people dead. The 15-year-old was with a group of drunk teens when it all happened. Although he admits his participation, Ligon denies accusations of killing anyone.

Unfortunately, this moment led to an arrest that would leave him behind bars for the rest of his life. Arrested in 1953 at the age of 15, he is now opening his eyes to a new world.

A Different World

“I’m looking at all the tall buildings,” Ligon said. “This is all new to me. This never existed.”

Ligon spent most of his days in prison honing his janitorial skills, learning to read and write, and training as a boxer. He never applied for parole although many tried to convince him to do so.

A Supreme Court Decision eventually declared automatic lifetime terms for kids cruel and unusual. The court offered lifetime parole terms. But Ligon refused the offer.

“I like to be free,” he said. “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.”

But now, Ligon will have a chance to experience life beyond the bars. He left the prison with 12 boxes in his hand ready to explore the new world.