For the first time in a generation, Pennsylvania prisons are releasing convicted murderers by the dozen.
In the last year, 70 men and women — all locked away as teens — have quietly returned to the community after decades behind bars. They’re landing their first jobs, as grocery store cashiers and line cooks, addiction counselors and paralegals. They are, in their 50s and 60s, learning to drive, renting their first apartments, trying to establish credit, and navigating unfamiliar relationships. They’re encountering the mismatch between long-held daydreams and the hard realities of daily life.
These are the first of 517 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania, the largest such contingent in the nation, to be resentenced and released on parole since the Supreme Court decided that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors are unconstitutional.
Many feel they’ve been granted both an extraordinary privilege and a grave responsibility: to demonstrate that it is, in fact, safe to release many of Pennsylvania’s more than 5,000 lifers. So far, not one of the 70 has violated parole.
“We understand the value of having things in place so we don’t have the Reggie McFaddens again,” said John Pace, 49, who left prison in February after 31 years. The case of Reginald McFadden — the juvenile lifer who received clemency and went on a rape and murder rampage in 1994 — effectively ceased such commutations in Pennsylvania.
Still, it has been a more difficult path than many imagined. They said representatives from various reentry organizations had visited the prisons, describing services that would be available to them.
“The ideas that they had us coming out to didn’t exist,” said Vincent Boyd, 52, who came home in February after 36 years. He’s humble, willing to work hard. After earning as little as 19 cents per hour in prison, low wages don’t faze him. He now cleans kitchens on an overnight shift, earning $55 a night. But housing, employment, and access to health care remain pressing concerns. “They weren’t ready for juvenile lifers to come out here. If we didn’t have it on our own, we didn’t receive it from anywhere else.”
So, the lifers are trying to organize their own reentry program. A peer-support group led by Pace meets monthly. “I believe in self-agency,” he said.
A big adjustment
Lifers who returned to Philadelphia and agreed to speak to the Inquirer and Daily News said the best things about being out of prison are, well, just about everything: Trees and squirrels and birds, parks and front porches, ice cream, soft pretzels, bubble baths. Opening up the refrigerator and choosing what you want to eat. Being with family. Being alone. Locking the door of your apartment. Unlocking it.
But the transition has also been jarring, confusing, difficult, and sometimes frightening.
There’s sticker shock, of course. Pizza cost 50 cents a slice when Boyd was locked up. Now, $3 seems exorbitant.
There are technological mishaps. Juvenile lifers have, like everybody else, discovered the annoyance of the group text.
Boyd shook his head: “I can’t stand that.”
They’re figuring out how to dress themselves. Almost anything is better than a prison uniform, but fashion can be tricky.
“We’re dealing with a different generation,” Pace said. “They like a lot of tight stuff. You got to be thoughtful that, when you’re buying jeans, they’re not skinny jeans.”
There are also more serious challenges.
After decades in close confines, the wider world can seem a scary place. It’s hard to shake the feeling everyone’s watching you after so many decades of being watched. And they find it strange that people will pass them on the street without bothering to say hello.
“Everyone is disconnected, walking down the street with headphones,” said John Thompson, 55, who spent 37 years in prisons. He was often held in solitary as punishment for possessing weapons, which he deemed necessary for survival. Yet, he doesn’t think the outside world is any safer.
Michael Twiggs, who was locked up for 41 years, often forwards warnings he encounters online, the type of ominous but easily debunked missive that was ubiquitous in the early days of email. “I do see a lot of warnings,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s real or fake, but I do try to pass it on.”
Some of their fears have proved justified. Wage theft, in particular, has plagued men who worked for weeks or months without pay. (Joseph Baynes, 59, shrugged it off when it happened to him. “The brother hired me sight unseen when I was in prison. I’m grateful for the experience.”)
Many are not yet making a living wage, but some are highly educated.
Pace, for one, has a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University, earned over the course of 13 years. He’s employed as a trainer for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and hopes to earn a master’s degree next.
And Twiggs, 59, who for two decades was president of the Para-Professional Law Clinic at Graterford Prison, is now working full-time as a paralegal with the appeals unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
A little help
So far, the lifers who have been released after three or four decades have not faced much public outcry.
Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s official victim advocate, expects to hear more concerns from victims’ families as lifers who’ve served less time come up for resentencing.
After all, everyone who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania was convicted of murder or felony murder – participating in a felony in which someone is killed.
Pace hit a man with a blackjack while attempting to mug him; the man died 10 days later. Twiggs shot another teen on the street in Southwest Philadelphia. Vincent Boyd and his nephew Courtney, both released this year, were among a group of teens who beat a man for a six-pack of beer and were sentenced to life after he died of a heart attack. Thompson shot a man who was breaking the windows of the North Philadelphia house where he lived. Baynes shot a 64-year-old woman in a robbery on the street.
Advocates say these men have matured and are now rehabilitated. They just need a little help to get back on their feet.
It’s hard to come by, though.
The Department of Corrections has helped where it can, working with lifers to obtain identification and offering a six-month housing voucher.
Jondhi Harrell, who runs the Center for Returning Citizens in Nicetown, said that he’s been assisting about a dozen lifers with developing life skills and plans, but that he needs funding to do the work effectively. He’s also enlisted David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer, to help match law firms with lifers who have paralegal experience. Rudovsky said he’s gauging firms’ interest.
Joanna Visser Adjoian of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project said reentry providers have tried to step up. “But there’s a real resource issue,” she said. Individual counseling would be ideal, but the project is instead launching a website to refer lifers to programs they may be eligible for.
The other challenges of life on the outside they will have to figure out for themselves.
Pace, for one, is navigating a new phase of a romantic relationship that was long-distance for the last eight years. “She said, ‘You were so sweet when you were in there!’ I said, ‘Well, you’re around me every day now.’ ”
Family relationships can be similarly problematic.
“You are always going to have a strained relationship with your family and friends, because you don’t see things from the same perspective,” Thompson said. “You can’t explain it to them. If your leg’s never been broken, you really don’t know how it feels to have your leg broken.”
For many, the only people who know just how they feel are other lifers.
“I consider them my brothers, my extended family,” Baynes said.
Baynes left prison in May after 43 years. He’s now working as a line cook, and living at a halfway house.
Life outside may be complicated, but his approach to it is simple, almost foolproof: “You got to give back. You got to be grateful. You got to thank God you got a second opportunity, and you got to do the right thing.”