Freddie Nole was a teenager last time he walked free back in 1969, when Richard Nixon was president and City Hall was still the tallest building in Philadelphia.
In January 2019, at age 68, Nole was released on parole. He’s trying to catch up on nearly half a century of lost time: going to church with his wife of 34 years, Susan Beard-Nole, and sharing home-cooked meals for the first time in decades. But everything still seems strange and overwhelming: the expansive restaurant menus (he asks Beard-Nole, 72, to order for him); the complicated new iPhone (he kept hanging up midcall); the confusing power locks on his wife’s car.
Nole is among the longest-serving of Pennsylvania’s 522 juvenile lifers, the largest such population in the nation, whose fates were transformed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that automatic life-without-parole terms for minors are unconstitutional. Under new sentences, at least 158 have been released on lifetime parole.
But Nole’s dreams of reuniting with his family, including granddaughters, grandnieces, and grandnephews, has been derailed. So has the vision he’s held on to for decades, of speaking to school groups about the hard lessons that can be learned from his youth, spent in gangs and juvenile detention, then half a century in prison.
That’s because, in addition to the typical challenges faced by longtime prisoners in reentry — often, securing housing with a felony record, and finding stable employment — he now faces an additional layer of restrictions from the state parole board. Though Nole has never been convicted, or even charged, with a sex offense, he was accused in 1989 of fondling a 5-year-old girl visiting a parent-child center at the prison. He says he never got the chance to dispute the claim; instead, he was quickly moved to a different prison, and issued an institutional misconduct.
Based on that misconduct, the parole board is instituting special conditions that prevent Nole from remaining in touch with his grandchildren and that Nole fears could render him homeless and make him vulnerable to reincarceration.
“It’s treating me as if I’m some kind of predator. This is tearing my family apart,” Nole said. In the past, he said, "I was able to visit with my grandchildren, my great-nieces and -nephews. These new restrictions take away all that. They’re being even more restrictive to me now [than when I was in prison].”
What Nole’s facing is, in some ways, typical for those convicted of sexual offenses.
Two-thirds of sex offenders are never approved for parole, instead remaining in prison until they reach their maximum-sentence date, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said at a recent public event. Often, that’s because they can’t get a home plan approved. The state parole board website lists being “too close to a place children gather” as a common reason for rejecting home plans for sex offenders. Litigation over access to state-run halfway houses for sex offenders, labeled “hard to place,” has dragged on for years.
As for Nole, he had planned to stay with Beard-Nole, who had moved to a new apartment complex because the old one barred parolees. But the new complex won’t allow him either, because of his felony record. Instead, he moved in with a nephew in North Philadelphia. However, Nole worries that, because that house is across the street from a rec center, a parole officer could determine it’s not appropriate.
And the full effect of rules around contact with children is just sinking in. His nephew, who has partial custody of his two young children, had to remove all their photos, clothes, toys, and other possessions from his house. The kids may not visit the home even if Nole is away. And, under the rules of his parole, Nole cannot send them texts or gifts or birthday cards, or tell their parents to send his regards.
Nole’s son, Bobby Shockley, who was born two months after Nole was incarcerated, said he hasn’t yet told his daughters, ages 11 and 18, that Nole is home from prison. His older daughter keeps asking if Nole will be out in time for her high school graduation. But the 49-year-old middle-school principal from Glen Allen, Va., said he’s just not sure how to explain the situation to them.
“We’re hopeful that something happens, either legally or whatever, because he has always had access to the girls. I don’t understand why he can’t be around his family,” Shockley said.
In February 1969, when Nole was 17, he and two other teens robbed an 81-year-old store owner at gunpoint. Prosecutors said Nole, during the robbery, hit the shopkeeper in the stomach with the butt of his gun, which Nole denies. Soon afterward, the man died of damage to his abdominal aorta. His codefendants were charged as juveniles, serving 11 and 18 months, but Nole was prosecuted as an adult and received a life sentence.
By the ’80s, he was a leader in Graterford prison. He met Beard in church, where she was a volunteer, and married her in 1984. He received accolades for launching the first parent-child resource center in a state prison visiting room, inspired by his desire to create a welcoming environment for his stepsons.
In 1989, after the misconduct, he was transferred, but Beard-Nole continued to visit, often bringing her children, as Nole was bounced around the state to five different institutions.
Beard-Nole, a retired software engineer from Norristown, said the last few weeks have been nerve-racking. Nole is living in fear of doing something that might run afoul of the long list of prohibitions, like waving at a child, or acknowledging a child through facial expressions.
“We feel we can’t even go to the Franklin Institute,” Beard-Nole said. “Are we allowed to do that? We don’t know what we can do. It makes you feel subhuman, that’s for sure."
And the 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew, another condition of his lifetime parole, has made it difficult for Nole to accomplish the many tasks the state requires of him. He’s required to report between 6 and 8 a.m. to Philadelphia police headquarters to obtain a criminal registration card, but getting to the front of the line there, without breaking his curfew, has so far proved impossible. And he’s been instructed to get an ID — but he’s had trouble getting his birth certificate in order first.
Aaron Marcus, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that while his office has challenged parole conditions generally — for example, antipornography rules so broad they appeared to include virtually any literature — individual challenges are extremely difficult.
“I don’t know how often, if ever, they succeed,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole does not release information on individual cases beyond the official board decision, a spokesperson said.
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said people with such parole conditions often struggle to find approved housing. “The rules are very arbitrary and it leads to people getting [reincarcerated] or having to change their housing based on the whim of their parole agent.”
Even without such restrictions, securing stable housing remains a major hurdle for juvenile lifers returning home after decades in prison, said Joanna Visser Adjoian, a cofounder of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, which is assisting about 40 such individuals. Some have been couch-surfing, while others have spent months in community correction centers trying to find long-term housing.
The Department of Corrections, in an effort to help this vulnerable population get on their feet, offers vouchers for six months' rent. But, Visser Adjoian said, “We’re seeing a scarcity of private housing providers being willing to accept the DOC subsidies that are available to them."
Nole is anxious to move past red tape, so he can use what years he has left to make a difference, if he can.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to his release spoke of restoring some hope of a life after prison for young offenders.
“Life potential,” Nole summed it up. “Right now I don’t feel like I have that.”