The first time John Pace saw Tracy Haley, at her friend Moose’s house on Farragut Street, he didn’t say a word. ‘He was very shy,’ Tracy remembers. ‘He used to just stare at me.’ He called her friend Lisa, to ask about her, but it took him two years to ask her out.
By then he was fifteen and testing the seams of young manhood. He skipped school, smoked grass and drank wine coolers: alcopops made with white wine and fizzy water, popular in the 1980s. He had ‘swagger’, Tracy says, and he told her what she wanted to hear: ‘I been thinking about you. You been on my mind.’ Tracy was smitten. She was thirteen.
Her grandfather’s house was across the street from West Philly High, so on school days John would come over to hang out, and to make out when there was no one else around. He called her every night, whether he had anything to talk about or not. At home, he shared a telephone with his mother, three sisters and three brothers, who might grab the receiver at any time. Tracy lived with her grandparents, her mother, and two sisters, and was limited, by order of her grandfather, to five minutes on the phone.
‘We had that type of relationship where we just communicated, at a very young age, about a lot of different things,’ Tracy says. ‘I used to say to him: “Why are you drinking? Why do you get high?” I thought that if I remained in his life, he was going to change.’ Her mother warned her: ‘He’s going to end up dead or in jail.’ In West Philadelphia, these were not unlikely prospects.
When Tracy’s family moved into a place of their own, her mother said she could talk on the phone for as long as she liked, if only to stop John coming over so often. Most nights, they fell asleep together on the line. One afternoon, John called from a payphone and Jeanette Haley picked up. ‘Treat Her Like a Lady’ by the Temptations was playing in the background. ‘This is what I want you to do to my daughter,’ she told him.
On 17 September 1985, John spent the afternoon with Tracy, then headed out to meet his friends. He didn’t call that night, and the next day at school Tracy couldn’t concentrate. At the bell, she hurried to his house. ‘Haven’t you heard? John’s been locked up,’ his sister Sarah told her. Terrified, Tracy ran to the bar where his mother worked. John had been in an ‘altercation’ with a man the night before, Dot Clemmons said: ‘Pray that man doesn’t die.’
The United States of America is the only country in the world that locks children up for life. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 196 of 197 members of the United Nations, prohibits sentencing juveniles to death or to life imprisonment. (Human rights organizations report that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and China have all executed children in recent years, in violation of the convention.)
‘The propriety of a sentence of life in prison without parole is in many ways uniquely American,’ Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told me. ‘We are much more comfortable with this idea that somebody is permanently irredeemable or beyond rehabilitation, or that they have forfeited forever their right to be free.’
In 2017, according to the Sentencing Project, at least 2,310 people were serving life without parole for crimes committed before they were old enough to vote, serve on a jury or legally buy a pack of cigarettes. A further 7,346 men and women convicted as juveniles were serving life terms with parole, and another 2,089 had been sentenced to fifty years or more behind bars. The majority of these prisoners were sentenced in the 1990s, during a moral panic over rising crime rates. Criminologist John Dilulio’s ‘super-predator’ theory, predicting a wave of remorseless teenage killers, was widely endorsed by the media and politicians, and forty states passed legislation automatically transferring juveniles to adult courts for serious offences. ‘Truth in sentencing’ and ‘mandatory minimum’ laws, passed in return for federal grants to build more prisons, ensured they would be punished extraordinarily harshly when convicted.
In the autumn of 2014, I began to correspond with a handful of these prisoners. When he was seventeen years old, Aaron Phillips robbed an old man, and was charged with murder after his victim died of a heart attack almost three weeks later. At sixteen, Justin Secreti was persuaded by an adult accomplice to break into an elderly couple’s home, and killed them when the robbery went wrong. At seventeen, David Walton got into an argument over a debt, and although it’s unclear whether he or his friend pulled the trigger, a man ended up dead. All of these men had been in prison for decades, had good disciplinary records and believed they deserved a second chance.
The letters that struck me most forcefully came from John Pace. I was attracted by the relative simplicity of his story: he had killed a man at seventeen, accepted responsibility, and, by 2014, had spent twenty-nine years reckoning with his crime. His mother, father, and three of his brothers had died while he was in prison.
In December 2014, I went to visit him. SCI Graterford is hidden away off a country road in Montgomery County, an hour north-west of Philadelphia by car. It employs around a thousand staff and houses some three thousand inmates, but it is protected by a thick screen of trees and one could easily drive right past it without knowing.
On my way in, a guard, mistaking me for a lawyer, asked: ‘Are you going to get Mr Ligon out of here? It’s ridiculous that he’s here.’ In February 1953, at fifteen, Joe Ligon ran with a gang that stabbed two people dead. It’s doubtful he was personally responsible for either murder, but he pled guilty and was sentenced to life. ‘If you come in here at a young age, you can get stuck in a certain place,’ Pace told me, implying that Ligon had been irreparably damaged by sixty-one years of confinement. ‘That’s what long-term incarceration can do.’
He had been in for three decades himself, and was the better for it, he said. His affect was relentlessly positive. He told me The Road Less Traveled, by psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, was his second Bible. ‘In the very beginning of the book, he says “Life is about suffering.” When we recognize that suffering will take place in life, it changes our perception of challenges.’ He was confident that, sooner or later, the law would change and he would be released.
This faith was grounded in moral certainty – ‘there is something inherently wrong with the stance that children are incapable of changing’ – but also a deep familiarity with the relevant law. In a series of judgements, beginning in 2005, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that children must be exempted from the most severe punishments, and although the justices had said nothing about what to do with men like Pace, who were sentenced long ago, the trajectory of the jurisprudence seemed clear.
For the two years that followed our initial meeting, John Pace and I communicated by phone, in pre-paid fifteen-minute instalments, periodically interrupted by a perky recorded reminder that ‘This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Graterford!’ When it became clear that Pace would be re-sentenced, and before long, paroled, he permitted himself to think and talk about the new life he would begin outside prison walls.
John was the ninth of eleven children born to Morris and Dorothy ‘Dot’ Clemmons. (Although Dot took her husband’s last name, she gave all the children her maiden name, Pace.) He had three older sisters and five older brothers. John’s closest friend was Morris Jr, eighth of the eleven, one year and sixteen days his senior. They were inseparable: fishing in the Schuylkill River with poles and string, racing karts, bouncing on abandoned mattresses and, as they grew stronger, playing basketball and a free-for-all version of American football they called suicide. Kids called John ‘Fat Fat’, for his chubby cheeks. If he got into a fight with a bigger boy, Morris Jr was the likeliest to step in.
I met Morris Jr after Friday prayer at Masjid Al-Jamia, on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. He had arranged some second-hand computer monitors on the bonnet of a car and was trying to sell them to his fellow worshippers. ‘My motto is: though I’m in the streets, I’m not part of the streets,’ he told me. ‘There’s some things that I can do in order to live, without robbing, stealing, killing or dealing.’ The blue mechanic’s overalls under his Muslim robe were smeared with engine grease.
We crossed the street to Makkah Market, and over fried chicken with curry sauce Morris Jr told me about his childhood. ‘I grew up in a single-parent home, always. I never remember a male figure living with us, never,’ he said. When Dot was at work, Marchelle, the sixth eldest, and Sarah, the seventh, kept house, but otherwise the kids fended for themselves, and were expected to earn their own pocket money by bagging groceries or shovelling snow in winter.
Morris Sr owned several bars in West Philadelphia, ran a stables in New Jersey, and did accountancy on the side. At weekends, he would take his sons (but rarely their sisters) to Rocky Rainbow Ranch, near Woodstown, where he looked after other people’s horses and trained his own: Ripoff, who won a few local races and ran at Belmont Park; Red Arrow, too wild to be tamed; and Sonny, a white stallion with one brown and one blue eye. Each boy had a pony, saved from the slaughterhouse at auction, and when they’d finished mucking out the stalls they’d race them around the track in the gully. Often, they would return to Philadelphia late on Sunday evening. Morris Jr remembers sitting in the truck, eating sunflower seeds, waiting for his dad to finish filling out somebody’s tax return, then getting dinner at McDonald’s.
One of Morris Sr’s bars, the Love Lounge, was two blocks from the boys’ school, on the corner of 59th Street and Market, and they would change into and out of their uniforms there. Dot was often there, cooking food and serving drinks. ‘Mom was the protector,’ John’s brother Michael told me. ‘But if she was at work, we were under that umbrella of mischief that could be happening.’ John called this ‘that space in-between’ – out of school with no parent around. ‘We gravitated to the streets.’
In December 2016, I travelled to West Philly to meet more of John’s siblings. Sarah Pace’s house on 62nd Street is home to three generations of the family, including her brothers Hugh and Michael, her three children and two grandkids, plus a cat, Princess, and two dogs, Patch and Prince. ‘She’s the one that everybody relies on,’ her niece Salima told me.
John had nominated Salima to be my guide to West Philadelphia. She was born in June 1985, three months before his arrest, so she had met him only at Graterford. Unlike her parents, she had been to university. She had a job with prospects, as a union administrator – and an SUV, to drive us around.
We started at the corner of 60th Street and Market, a busy intersection under the elevated metro line. The street lighting is better than it used to be, Salima told me, but it has otherwise changed little since the 1980s. There was a makeshift memorial to a slain youth by the station entrance: candles, photographs, cards and stuffed toys. ‘It’s gang violence. Small wars over nothing,’ Salima said. ‘You get desensitized to them, because you see ’em pretty much every day: the balloons, teddy bears. There’s a lot of crime. A lot of drugs. A lot of death. Not a lot of pride.’
A block down Market, we reached the former Love Lounge – ‘a hole-in-the-wall kind of spot with a juke. One way in, one way out’ – where Salima got Shirley Temples from her grandma Dot as a kid, and Bernard Pace, the youngest of Dot and Morris Sr’s sons, sometimes DJ-ed. Its latest incarnation, the Comfort Zone, looked long dead.
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States. Around a quarter of its residents, more than 400,000 people, live below the poverty line, including 12.2 per cent who live in ‘deep poverty’, with an annual income of less than $12,300 for a family of four. At the 56th Street projects, Salima and I got out of the car again, then thought better of it – the night was bitterly cold – and drove on. We passed the Salvation Army, which could be relied on for a free toy at Christmas; the new buildings at John Barry Elementary; the loft apartments that were once West Philly High; and rows of houses in varying states of disrepair.
I knew, by this point, that John was not the only member of his family to be sent to prison. His brothers Morris Jr and Hugh had been convicted, separately, of armed robbery, and Bernard had been in and out of jail his whole adult life, on charges stemming from his drug addiction. Yet somehow, the mental image I had constructed, in my conversations with John, was of a family of essentially good kids, marshalled by a formidable single mother.
‘I think my grandma did damn good taking care of eleven kids,’ Salima said. ‘But talking to a boy about his mother that’s now gone is going to paint a picture that … for him, she was a hero.’ Salima remembered Dot as a ‘sassy little lady’ who ‘had a mouth on her’ and could produce a meal of chicken with sweet potatoes, string beans and collard greens for twenty, in a tiny kitchen, but couldn’t hope to keep her children out of trouble.
‘The guys in the family got into a lot of the things that were around them,’ Salima told me. ‘They were used to sharing everything they had: to share your bed, to share your meal, to share your fork, to share your shoe. They wanted more.’
In his book Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City, the sociologist Elijah Anderson describes an environment where respect is accorded to displays of ‘nerve’ and ‘heart’, requiring boys, in particular, to prove their toughness. John advised me to read it. It had helped him understand how he ended up in prison, and would help me understand, too, he felt.
‘In the inner-city environment respect may be viewed as a form of social capital that is very valuable, especially when various other forms of capital have been denied or are unavailable,’ Anderson writes. ‘Not only is it protective; it often forms the core of a person’s self-esteem … respect is fought for and held and challenged as much as honour was in the age of chivalry. Respect becomes critical for staying out of harm’s way.’
The early 1970s was a time of gang warfare in West Philadelphia. John’s eldest brother, Hugh Pace, was in the Moon Gang, and got caught up in enough trouble for Dot to pack him off to live with relatives in Easton. I asked John and Morris Jr whether the Pace family had a rep, thinking the seven brothers were sure to have a name on the street, but they both said no.
‘In the neighbourhoods that we hung in, there were times when you could walk in and guns was sitting on the table. But this was outside of our home,’ Morris Jr said. ‘I’ve seen nine-year-olds carrying dope, carrying guns. We didn’t come from that background.’
In their teens, the brothers began to spend less time together. John hung out at the low-rise public housing at 56th Street and Arch, and Morris Jr with his crew at the 46th Street projects. ‘The same path but different places,’ as Morris Jr put it. ‘We’re using intoxicants. We’re around people that have guns. So what happens is this behaviour becomes instilled in us.’
John described a process of ‘graduation’, from basketball to smoking grass to shoplifting to muggings, all with the same group of friends: ‘We were out there, reckless, experimenting together. We weren’t a gang or anything. We were just young men hanging around and making poor decisions … That’s what made you thorough. That’s what made you cool, the more you were out there doing crazy stuff.’
By the time he was seventeen, he was playing truant often enough for the principal to call his mother and threaten to expel him. It was the summer of Run DMC’s ‘King of Rock’, ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’ by LL Cool J and ‘PSK, What Does It Mean?’ by Philadelphia rapper Schooly D. ‘Pretty much every night’, John would head to the speakeasy at his friend Roger’s house, at 111 Arch Street, to listen to hip-hop and get stoned. Afterwards, he and his crew would cruise the streets, looking for ‘someone that was high, someone that was by themselves’ to rob.
On 18 September 1985, he headed home around four in the morning, smashed on beer, marijuana and valium. Turning down 53rd Street, he spotted an older man walking towards him. Randolph Baldwin was on his way to work, two trains and a car ride away in Piscataway, New Jersey, and as usual had set off before dawn to arrive by eight o’clock. He carried his lunch in a brown paper bag.
Randolph Baldwin was no fool. ‘What are you up to?’ he asked. ‘Get on out of here. I know what you’re up to.’
John has had thirty-two years to replay what happened next, but he was so out of it he can’t be sure. When police took a statement from him later that morning, he told them: ‘I didn’t mean to hurt him. All I wanted was some money.’ He then claimed Baldwin took a swing at him – a pre-emptive strike – and that he pulled a ‘slapjack’ from his back pocket during the ensuing struggle and hit Baldwin once on the side of his head.
Officer Leonard Little testified that when John saw the police car approaching, he started walking away and threw the slapjack, a leather baton filled with lead, into an alley between two houses. Little grabbed him, cuffed him and threw him in the car. Baldwin was on the ground, ‘jabbering incoherently’, with visible bruising on his head.
At the police station, John was charged with aggravated assault and robbery, gave a statement admitting the offence, and was taken to juvenile detention. At Presbyterian Hospital, Randolph Baldwin lapsed into a coma. Ten days later, he was pronounced dead. John Pace was formally rearrested in the presence of his mother, and charged with murder.
Pennsylvania was the first US state to define the crime of murder, in 1794. ‘All murder, which shall be perpetrated by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of wilful, deliberate and premeditated killing, or which shall be committed in the perpetration or attempt to perpetrate any arson, rape, robbery, or burglary, shall be deemed murder of the first degree,’ read the statute. ‘All other kinds of murder shall be deemed murder in the second degree.’ The former was punishable by death, the latter by life imprisonment. Almost immediately, judges began to differentiate between ‘wilful, deliberate and premeditated’ murders and unplanned killings, and in 1939, this distinction was written into the statute books.
John Pace’s attorney advised him to plead guilty to second-degree murder, telling him (and his parents) that with good behaviour, he would be out in fifteen years. In reality, second-degree murder in Pennsylvania carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In the trial transcript, one can almost hear Judge David Savitt’s frustration as he spells out the punishment he must impose, three times.
THE COURT: If I find you guilty or if I accept the plea to second-degree murder, you must know that the sentence is life imprisonment. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: I will have no discretion to sentence you less than that. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: And if you plead guilty to second-degree murder, and you are found guilty of second-degree murder, the sentence will be life imprisonment. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
The judge, though clearly trying to help, never specified that ‘life imprisonment’ meant life without the possibility of parole. John, believing he would be eligible for parole, pleaded guilty. Bradley Bridge, who has represented John since 2005, told me that he would have tried to work out a deal with prosecutors for third-degree murder, defined in Pennsylvania law as a killing that is neither planned nor intended, nor committed in the course of a felony. It is punishable by ten to twenty years in prison. Bridge added that misunderstandings about what life imprisonment means in practice are common. ‘The majority of people … think people serve twelve to fifteen years, and in many states that might be true. In Pennsylvania it’s not.’
John started his sentence in juvenile detention, and to begin with, Tracy visited him regularly. ‘Rain, snow, whatever, I went to see him every single week,’ she told me, ‘and during that time he was not the John that I knew out here. He was mean and confused and sometimes we just sat there … He was like, “I can only be your friend, because I got a life sentence,” and I was devastated.’
In January 1988, just after Tracy turned eighteen, she was caught passing a twenty-dollar bill to John, and banned from visiting him for six months. In a letter, John told her to go to the high school prom with another boy, but she didn’t think it would be right, and went alone. When it was time for her to go to college, he gave her a spare trunk to pack her things in, and it was at Norfolk State University, in her freshman year, that she fell in love with a different man and began to forget her childhood sweetheart.
Christopher Simmons was seventeen when he hatched a plan to kill a stranger and enlisted a friend, assuring him they would ‘get away with it’ because they were underage. They broke into Shirley Crook’s house, gagged and blinded her with duct tape, bound her hands and feet with electrical wire, and threw her off a bridge, to drown in the river below. At trial, Simmons’ lawyer said jurors should take his age into account as a mitigating factor. The prosecutor agreed that the jury should ‘think about age’, but put a different spin on it: ‘Seventeen years old. Isn’t that scary? Mitigating? Quite the contrary.’ The jury sentenced Simmons to death.
On 1 March 2005, in Roper v Simmons, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5–4 majority that the Constitution prohibits the execution of minors. ‘When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity,’ wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Kennedy cited amicus briefs from the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association summing up academic research about adolescent immaturity. He noted that, ‘as every parent knows’, teenagers make impetuous, ill-considered decisions and are more susceptible to peer pressure, and that their personality traits are not yet fixed. ‘If trained psychiatrists with the advantage of clinical testing and observation refrain, despite diagnostic expertise, from assessing any juvenile under eighteen as having antisocial personality disorder, we conclude that States should refrain from asking jurors to issue a far graver condemnation – that a juvenile offender merits the death penalty,’ he wrote.
Five years later, in Graham v Florida, the court extended this reasoning, ruling that sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for crimes other than murder also violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. This time, Kennedy cited emerging neuroscience showing that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, is not fully formed in teenagers.
The third case in the series, Miller v Alabama, was adjudicated in 2012. Evan Miller was fourteen when he beat his neighbour with a baseball bat and set his trailer on fire, but he was tried as an adult, and the only available punishments in Alabama were death or life without parole. The Supreme Court ruled that such mandatory sentences cannot be imposed on juveniles, as they deny judges the opportunity to take mitigating circumstances into account.
Miller had attempted suicide four times, starting when he was six. His mother was an alcoholic and drug addict, and his father and stepfather both beat him. At ten, he was placed in foster care, only to be returned to his mother’s custody three years later. The night of the murder, he was high on marijuana, whiskey and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication. The victim, Cole Cannon, was one of his mother’s dealers.
‘Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,’ wrote Justice Elena Kagan, for the 5–4 majority. ‘It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him, and from which he cannot usually extricate himself, no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.’
In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the Constitution has no regard for a defendant’s age. ‘Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers … But that is not our decision to make,’ he wrote. ‘A decent society protects the innocent from violence. A mature society may determine that this requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst.’ He also wondered where the majority’s reasoning would lead: ‘Unless confined, the only stopping point for the Court’s analysis would be never permitting juvenile offenders to be tried as adults.’ This is, in fact, the great hope of criminal justice reformers.
In March 1986, a month before John’s eighteenth birthday, he was transferred from juvenile detention to an observation wing at Camp Hill, an adult prison near Harrisburg. On 28 April, he graduated to the main block. Most of the inmates there were serving long sentences for serious crimes, and John could map the paths through hard time in the postures of older men. He found a mentor, Kareem, an elder in the Nation of Islam, who taught him that the way to survive was to stay curious – to find out who he was.
Camp Hill was designed to hold 1,800 men. On 25 October 1989 it held more than 2,600. The tension caused by overcrowding was exacerbated by a ban on visitors bringing food parcels. When inmate Bryant Melton threw a punch at Corrections Officer James Thomas, as hundreds of prisoners were being moved through the yard, it sparked a riot. Inmates overpowered the guards, took hostages and set fire to buildings, including the kitchen, the hospital, a gate house, and a factory where prisoners worked for a few cents an hour roasting coffee and putting tea in teabags. ‘Smoke spewing from the prison cast the smell of brewing coffee for miles around,’ according to the New York Times.
The first night, John was safe in the prison’s law library, on the opposite wing to the trouble, and made it back to his cell without incident after state troopers restored order. The following evening, rioting began again, this time engulfing the whole prison, when inmates escaped from cells with damaged locks and set their comrades free.
‘Visualize this,’ John told me. ‘Every single door is open. The blocks were pitch black. You’re probably more at risk just sitting in your cell, so I went and got a couple of friends and we stuck together … People were running around everywhere with masks on, hiding themselves. You didn’t know who was who.’
A force of several hundred police officers, led by Pennsylvania’s SWAT team, was unable to retake control until the next morning. Dozens of hostages were rescued from the control centre after inmates surrounded it and set it on fire. By the time the last holdouts surrendered, more than half the prison’s buildings had been destroyed, and 123 people had been injured.
In the inquest that followed, corrections officers, convinced the prison’s Muslims had played a leading role, asked John to incriminate his friends. When he didn’t, they threw him in solitary confinement, first in J Annex at Camp Hill, then at Huntingdon prison. His ‘indirect involvement’ in the riot was used as justification to keep him in the hole for more than a year. Alone in a cell, twenty-three hours a day, he passed the time reading: Robert Ludlum and John Grisham thrillers, legal textbooks and newspapers.
In the American ‘correctional’ system, rehabilitation generally comes a poor third behind punishment and confinement on the list of priorities. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, in common with most states, places prisoners serving life sentences at the back of the queue for educational programmes. ‘The idea is you want to prepare individuals for re-entry in society,’ Brooke McCarthy of the Juvenile Law Centre told me. Why waste scarce resources on men who will never be released?
Since the Supreme Court’s Miller decision, teenage lifers are an exception to this rule. Now, some prisons have a Juvenile Lifer Co-ordinator, to help prisoners with the most time to serve gain access to educational programmes, in the expectation that they will eventually be eligible to apply for parole. In John’s day, though, he had to fight for whatever training he could get. At Huntingdon, he learned the basics of plumbing and electrical work, and how to mix cement. He stocked shelves in the law library and worked in the print shop, making posters and leaflets for commercial customers for $1.13 an hour. At Graterford, he worked in the para-professional law clinic, writing briefs and motions for his fellow prisoners, until the prison authorities shut them down. He took his General Equivalency Diploma, and later worked for nine years as a literacy tutor, teaching inmates without a high-school education how to read and write. He completed courses in Business Law, Creative Writing, Algebra, Trigonometry and Accounting, and took thirteen years to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Criminal Justice from Villanova, because seminars and lectures were so few and far between. In short, he seized every chance he was offered, and created others besides.
Talking to Brooke McCarthy, I worried that focusing on John in this article would create a misleading impression about teenagers sentenced to life without parole, and how hard it is for them to thrive in a dangerous, punitive environment. ‘Of course, everyone gravitates to those individuals who have done exceptionally well inside,’ she said. ‘We have to be very honest: we sent a bunch of kids to adult prisons … Unfortunately, some of them were heavily victimized. If it’s very violent for you early on you’re likely to adjust to prison differently.’
This article is not about the seventeen-year-old who is abused by prisoners and guards and develops a reputation as a ‘complainer’ because he files grievances, thus guaranteeing more beatings and more time in the hole. It is not about the prisoner with untreated mental health problems, kept in solitary confinement for his own protection, who sprays guards with piss and shit through the feeding slot. Both of the men I’ve just briefly described were recently re-sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania for second-degree murder, having already spent decades behind bars. In the latter case, the judge described the defendant as ‘an aggressive, anger-filled, vengeful person who has total and unmitigated disdain for authority’ and ruled that the state had met its burden of proof that he is ‘one of those rare individuals who will never be amenable to rehabilitation’.
John spent the morning of 25 June 2012 watching cable news alone in his cell. For weeks, the lifers had been passing around transcripts of the oral arguments in Miller, trying to discern which way the Justices would rule, but now that an announcement was due, the tension in the day room was too much to bear.
CNN had a reporter on the Supreme Court steps, where two opposed groups of demonstrators had gathered to hear the other verdict expected that day, about whether a controversial Arizona law requiring police to check immigration status at traffic stops would be allowed to stand. The Miller ruling was delivered almost in passing: something for the studio guests to talk about while they waited for the big news.
When the Miller verdict came in, two of John’s fellow lifers were observed dancing in their cell, and men who should have known better discussed where they would stay when they got out and what they were most looking forward to, as if the Justices had declared them free to go.
Waiting for a favourable Supreme Court decision is like hoping for fruit from a tree damaged by frost: an annual cycle of hope and disappointment. In March 2015, nearly three years after the Miller judgement, the Court granted a petition from Henry Montgomery, who was seventeen when he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy who had caught him playing truant. He had spent fifty-two years in prison in Louisiana, serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In January 2016, six of the nine justices agreed that he must be re-sentenced.
‘In light of what this Court has said in Roper, Graham, and Miller about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability … prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption,’ wrote Justice Kennedy, ‘and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.’
At the time, around 2,300 men and women were serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as children. The implication of the Montgomery ruling was that they would all need to be re-sentenced. The ruling also declared that in cases where judges or juries have discretion in sentencing, true life sentences, with no hope of ever being released, should be reserved for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility’.
In Louisiana, Henry Montgomery was re-sentenced to life, with parole. This February, he finally got a hearing, and was denied parole by two votes to one. Citing his lack of qualifications, the board ruled that in fifty-four years in Angola prison, working in the silk-screen printing shop and coaching the boxing team, he has not demonstrated that he is ready to be released.
On 26 October 2017, John Pace accepted a plea deal of thirty years to life, making him immediately eligible for parole. The hearing was a formality, the outcome agreed with prosecutors in advance. Absent the legalese, the transcript reads more like a lifetime achievement award ceremony than a re-sentencing.
‘He has added tremendous depth to our endeavours to produce a humanized, more just understanding of society,’ testified Dr Susan Clampet-Lundquist, a colleague at the Inside-Out programme that runs collaborative workshops between prisoners and university students. ‘He was what I called a quiet leader among his fellow students,’ Villanova University Professor Ronald Hill said. ‘They love him.’
Assistant District Attorney Chelsey Lightsey spoke on the behalf of the son of John Pace’s victim, Randolph Baldwin Jr. ‘His initial reaction was, I lost my father as a teenager and Mr Pace should spend the rest of his life in prison,’ Lightsey said. ‘However, he took some time … and reached out to his sister and the two of them agreed that if this defendant would show remorse’ they would not stand in the way of his release.
Before imposing the new sentence, the judge asked Pace to address the court. ‘Thirty-one years ago, when I said that I was sorry, I meant that,’ he said. ‘I recognize the pain that I caused him, his family, as well as my family, you know. I enjoy everyone saying the beautiful things they said but I wish it was under different circumstances.’
When I met Tracy for the first time, in February 2017, John was still in prison. She was my last interview of the afternoon, and I had a bus to catch, so after she picked me up in the university district we drove a few blocks, parked outside a supermarket and sat talking in the car. She had a leather jacket on and wore her hair in short braids.
We had spoken on the phone, but her candour came as a welcome surprise. She recalled the time John and his father turned up at her house with a ‘hot’ colour television, acquired in one of the family’s bars, to replace their tiny black-and-white. And the time John’s friend tried to sic his pit bull on someone but it bit John instead. He had his life in the streets, and his life with her, she said: he took drugs, and hung with a bad crowd, but he was a solicitous boyfriend.
After Tracy went away to college, they continued to write, but she stopped visiting him. She sent bulletins, years apart: I’ve met a guy; we’re getting married; I’m having a baby; I’m pregnant again. His replies were addressed to her father’s house, which makes it sound like … ‘Sneakin’! Yeah, it was. It was.’ Although the letters were stiff, betraying no hint of their former intimacy, she preferred that her husband didn’t know about them.
Tracy didn’t see John for twenty-two years, and completely lost contact with him for five or six years or maybe more, but she saw his mother around town, and his sisters, and thought of him. When her younger cousin Roger, in prison for murder, was transferred to Graterford, Tracy told him to look out for John, and to pass on some news: she was getting divorced. ‘I reached out to John after I had separated, sold my house, everything,’ she said. ‘I asked him to call me, and he did, and oh my God we just talked’ – about how they had been altered, and how they had stayed the same. It was as if a phone line, cut off when they were adolescents, had been reconnected.
She began to visit him. He asked her to read The Road Less Traveled, then to read it again, and they ‘dissected’ it together, discussing what M. Scott Peck means by ‘love is an action’. ‘And I used to say, “If you come out I can’t be with you because I’ve got kids, they too small,”’ Tracy told me. ‘Now they’re eighteen and sixteen. It’s totally different now. At this point, I feel like I don’t have anything to lose.’
On 15 February 2017, Tracy returned from lunch to find an email from John with ‘release date tomorrow’ in the subject line. She had planned for this day, but now that it had arrived, all the talking about it in advance and playing it through in her head had done little to settle her emotions. She couldn’t sleep.
At a quarter to eight the next morning, a guard drove John from the Outside Service Unit at Graterford to the front door of the prison. He had been sending his books home with Salima for months, and had given most of his other possessions away. Saying his goodbyes on the block had been hard, but now that he was actually walking free, he felt calm and prepared.
Tracy had bought him a phone with a prepaid SIM card, and a black-and-grey Nike tracksuit that he found too tight for his middle-aged body. In a photo taken by Mike Lyons, who campaigns against life sentences for juveniles at the Redemption Project, John is standing by Tracy’s car looking sheepish, as if he’s been caught sneaking out of a family gathering for a jog.
On the ride home, he felt carsick, and Tracy was sick with nerves. He had a room at his sister Bernadette’s house, a welcome-home dinner with his family planned the next evening, and a list of academics and lawyers and prisoner-rights activists wanting to take his picture and shake his hand; but that first day, it was just the two of them. She had taken two days off, to teach him how to use a smartphone, show him how the fare cards work on public transport, help him fill in the forms to get housing assistance, but mostly just to be with him.
‘Sometimes I still can’t believe it, because he’s right here at my fingertips,’ she told me. ‘I have to calm myself down because he’s home now, which makes it a lot better, but also challenging. When he was away, we had designated times that he knew I was going to call. Everything was planned. We in a different season right now.’
In May of last year, I took a bus to Philadelphia to meet John for the first time since his release. We had arranged to meet at 30th Street Station, a grand 1930s terminal with a vast atrium supported by neoclassical columns. Wondering if he would recognize me, I took a seat on one of the long wooden benches near the front door, and was reading a news article on my phone when he materialized at my side, beaming.
I told him he looked different. He laughed: ‘Doesn’t the streets make you look different?’
John walked with a slight limp, due to tendinitis in his right knee that he attributed to running while overweight. At Graterford he jogged five miles a day, four laps per mile around the prison yard, and twice ran a marathon. For the next six hours we walked and talked, stopping at places he thought would help me understand him.
Philadelphia is known for its murals, many of which depict leaders in the civil rights movement and scenes of African-American uplift. As we passed a four-storey painting honouring the Tuskegee Airmen, complete with a Messerschmitt in flames and ranks of black pilots in Air Force greens, John told me that some murals were painted by prisoners on day release. He pulled out his smartphone to show me, and I expressed surprise that he was so comfortable with the technology, bearing in mind that three months earlier he had never sent an email or browsed the internet. ‘Within a week, I was Google Mapping,’ he said proudly, clicking on a Facebook Live video of inmates in bright yellow overalls painting a bridge.
A former prisoner, Tyrell Muhammad, once told me that after completing a twenty-six-year stretch, he initially couldn’t leave the house without an escort, and wore dark glasses all day so people wouldn’t be put off by his stare. John, by contrast, seemed remarkably at ease. ‘At the beginning, it was overwhelming, but I like to use the analogy that we as human beings are organisms,’ he said. ‘Whatever the environment, we’re ultimately going to adapt to it … I took a walk the very first week, and I got lost, but I kept walking, because I knew it was going to make me feel more comfortable in just being out here.’
We strolled along Market Street, in the shadow of the elevated tracks, past the parole office where John checks in every third Tuesday. His sentence, thirty to life, means he will be on parole until he dies, and could theoretically be sent back to prison for handling stolen property or smoking a joint. He had just been told he would have to complete a six-week violence-prevention course, even though he hadn’t been in a fight in more than thirty years.
After passing the former Love Lounge, we turned left down North 57th, then right down Arch, a street of dilapidated rowhouses with peeling paint, some boarded up. A few of the young men standing around looked up; others ignored us. ‘At one time, you couldn’t walk in this neighbourhood. If they see someone like you, they would look at you as potential prey,’ Pace said. It wasn’t obvious to me that this had changed, and I was grateful to have him as my guide.
John wanted to show me 111 Arch Street, where he spent his last night of freedom. As we passed the 56th Street projects, a complex of squat redbrick buildings, he was telling me that the only person he knew here now was his half-sister Lisa, at which point she opened her front door and rushed out to give him a hug. They talked about how the place had changed since the 1980s: double-glazed windows, reinforced doors, a children’s playground and fences that create back gardens. You couldn’t run a speakeasy here now, she said; it would be shut down on the second night. In Philadelphia Housing Authority properties, rent is cheap, but the rules are strictly, albeit somewhat arbitrarily enforced, and she had seen plenty of people kicked out.
The surrounding neighbourhood was a vista of neglect: several houses had missing tiles, broken windows or collapsed gutters, the grass verge hadn’t been cut in weeks and there was rubbish heaped by the roadside and in vacant lots. I asked her if it was a good place to live. ‘No,’ she answered instantly. ‘I mean, my strip is fine but other spots are still dangerous. You have a lot of people using drugs … There’s a lot of kids round here, they striving to do great, so I just try to make sure that they are treated and rewarded for the good things they do, because they witness a lot of bad things. It’s easy to do bad and kind of hard to do good.’
We continued along Arch Street, retracing John’s steps on the night he killed Randolph Baldwin. As we walked, he described the addled state he was in and the pressure he felt to ‘challenge’ himself by robbing someone. At the corner of Arch and North Yewdall Street we saw an improvised memorial, and were crossing towards it when John spotted some youths and tugged my coat, warning me off. I later discovered that the memorial commemorates a twenty-year-old man, shot dead on his front porch at three in the morning.
We turned right onto North 53rd Street. John had not been back to the block since his release, and he slowed as we reached the alley where he discarded the slapjack, then the pavement where Randolph Baldwin fell. The windows and door of the nearest house were boarded up and a tube television sat on the porch. I asked John what he was thinking about, and he said he was troubled by the youths we had seen on the corner, idling on a school day. ‘Young people ain’t got nothing to do. Ain’t got no jobs. They could have been close to the person [who was shot]. It could have been a little sensitive to them. That’s why I said we shouldn’t go there. But why are they just out here not doing nothing?’
They reminded him of his seventeen-year-old self. ‘You see how easy it is for the young people to gravitate to the negativity, particularly when you don’t have a sense of who you are. I see the bad decisions that I was making. I felt like there was something wrong – I felt that – but the streets had a heavy pull on me, you know?’
Our last stop of the day was at Tracy’s office. As we chatted around the table at the non-profit where she works as an administrator, they already sounded like a married couple: finishing each other’s sentences and bickering over minor disagreements. John had been having difficulty learning to share his space, he said, in the times when he wanted to be alone. Tracy groused about his morning moods, a side of him she wished other people could witness.
I asked Tracy if she ever thought about what might have been, and John answered before she could get a word in: ‘Oh, all the time.’
Tracy: ‘Yes, I think about that. We talked about that last night, didn’t we?’
John: ‘All the time, she talk about that, what might have been.’
Tracy: ‘Is that uncomfortable? Is it something I should stop talking about or …’
John: ‘No, he just asked the question, and I’m just amplifying …’
I interrupted: ‘But you have regrets?’
‘I ain’t gonna say regrets,’ Tracy said. ‘I don’t wanna say regrets … I lived my life. I had to.’
By September, John had moved from his sister Bernadette’s house into a flat of his own, on North 63rd Street, a wide boulevard with tram tracks down the centre, lined with huge, to my mind rather ugly detached houses, built in the early twentieth century and abandoned en masse by their white owners in the 1970s. John had arranged for Morris Jr to join us, and while we waited, he showed me around the flat: the brand-new television in his room, the wardrobe Tracy had commandeered a section of, the sliced turkey and bottled water in his fridge, and his degree certificate from Villanova, framed on the wall. Other than a folding wooden chair, the living room was bare. He planned to get a futon.
Morris Jr arrived, grumbling about his knee as he climbed the stairs. The brothers were getting together for my benefit, but reminiscing was evidently a rare treat. They had barely seen each other since John got out, and took great pleasure in remembering the time John had an allergic reaction to chocolate, how he broke his arm playing football, the barber on 60th Street who gave you a ‘hustler’ buzz cut no matter what you asked for, and the ‘tattoos’ they made with an eraser as kids: faint, long-healed scabs spelling M and J on their forearms.
John pulled out a photograph of them standing with Bernard outside one of their father’s bars, and they debated when it was taken, eventually dating it around the first Sugar Ray Leonard v Roberto Duran bout, in June 1980, when someone pulled the door of the Enterprise Centre off its hinges and half the neighbourhood surged in to watch the fight on the big screen.
‘As children, we was always together,’ Morris said. ‘It took me a few years to get over when he got sentenced to life – I cried and everything.’ Once, he took a five-hour bus ride with their mother, to visit John at Huntingdon Prison in north-western Pennsylvania, and was turned away because he had failed to tell staff he was coming.
‘Here’s something that I’m gonna share. Well, it’s up to you to share it, John,’ Morris said. ‘You remember the situation about the leather jacket, on 51st Street? The leather jacket and the thing that got caught in the sleeve.’ I had pressed John for details of the ‘crazy stuff’ he got up to as a teenager many times, without much success, so I was intrigued.
Sometime in the winter of 1984–5 – he can’t remember when exactly, but it must have been winter because he was wearing a down-filled bomber jacket – John and his crew from the projects heard that a laundry near the corner of 51st and Market had been robbed. With the wisdom of youth, they decided to rob it again, the following night. They waited for the owner, an older man, to shut up shop, then followed him along the street, unaware he had got a gun. He turned and fired a single shot through his trenchcoat, and the boys scarpered. When John was sure neither the owner nor the police were following him, he looked inside the sleeve of his coat and found a slug of metal, not much bigger than a pea, lodged in the lining near the elbow.
‘Not many people can relate that type of story, when a person shoots at you, and you can actually take the physical bullet home, and look at it and examine it and put it right in front of you,’ Morris said. ‘He could have died that night, but he goes to prison. You understand what I’m saying? I always reflect on that, that that’s the type of lifestyle we were livin’. Prison, in a sense, may have saved him.’
John nodded. ‘A significant part of my life was taken from me, but I look at who I am today, and my clarity of thought, and I know that that’s a blessing,’ he said.
In 1994, Morris was convicted of armed robbery for his role in two botched stick-ups, at a furniture shop on 52nd Street and a restaurant in Haverford Town. The judge said he felt sorry for him, and sentenced him to two-to-four years for the first, and three-to-six for the second. ‘I got up and said, “Thank you, your honour … when a person find themselves having to resort to those measures, robbing people, in order to live, it’s a sad state.”’
When his parents’ health declined in the late 1990s, John requested a transfer to Graterford, to be closer to Philadelphia. Morris was there already, and the brothers briefly shared a cell. This sort of arrangement is less unusual than one might think. Last year, a former inmate counted forty-one father-and-son pairs at Graterford, including seventeen sharing a cell, and seven families with three generations of men locked up together.
Morris and John paced out their cell, eight steps long, from the kitchen table to the bathroom door, four steps wide. In winter, Morris would hang wet towels over the radiator, to mitigate the furnace-like heat.
Towards the end of her life, Dot Clemmons rarely left the house she shared with Bernard. She needed an oxygen tank to breathe, due to chronic bronchitis caused by a lifetime of smoking, active and passive. At Graterford, John and Morris Jr were only an hour’s drive away, but she was too weak and too set in her ways to make the trip. When she died, in 2005, her children asked the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections if John could attend her funeral, and were told that because he was a lifer, and theoretically a flight risk, he would have to pay for the guards, the van and the driver: close to $2,000 in total, just to view the body and leave. John told them don’t worry, it’s not worth it; but of all the goodbyes he was denied, it was the most painful.
Back at the flat, John’s phone rang for the fourth time in an hour, interrupting our conversation. Morris teased him affectionately about being so popular, and as John stood talking at the bedroom window, we eavesdropped from the kitchen.
Many of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys have responded to the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision by striking plea deals with the longest-serving prisoners. Others, in conservative counties, have not. By late September 2017, 173 of the state’s 517 juvenile lifers had been re-sentenced, and 77 paroled for time served. Most of the released prisoners are from Philadelphia, creating a small community of men with the shared experience of being locked up their entire adult lives, adapting to a world that has moved on without them. Courtney ‘Juan’ Boyd, recently released after serving thirty-six years, was calling John to ask about a re-sentencing hearing the previous night for a prisoner called Andre Martin. At fifteen, Martin shot a police officer in the head from a window at the Wilson Park projects. He had forty-one years in already, and the prosecution was seeking sixty to life, supported at the hearing by the dead cop’s family and a roomful of police officers. Judge Barbara McDermott gave him forty-four to life. In three years, the opposing sides will meet again at an equally charged parole hearing, to argue about whether or not Martin should be released.
Each of the fifty states has responded differently to the Montgomery v Louisiana ruling, and there are also variations within states, as district attorneys interpret the concept of ‘permanent incorrigibility’. In Michigan, for instance, prosecutors initially sought new life-without-parole sentences for 236 of the 363 men and women serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as minors, a clear deviation from the Supreme Court’s intent to reserve the punishment for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders’. The Oakland County DA has asked for life without parole in forty-four of forty-nine cases; ‘These are young Hannibal Lecters,’ county sheriff Michael Bouchard told the press. In Missouri, teenage lifers are now eligible for parole once they have spent twenty-five years in prison, but of twenty-three who have applied, twenty have been denied. In Maryland, all 271 juvenile lifers are parole-eligible, but no such prisoner has been released in two decades.
All over the country, lawsuits are establishing whether and how Montgomery should affect discretionary sentences. ‘We think the Montgomery standard is impossible [for prosecutors] to beat, in that everyone is capable of rehabilitation given the proper support,’ said Brooke McCarthy of the Juvenile Law Centre. ‘To say that you can never fix someone in the future, no matter what, is such an incredibly difficult standard to reach. Some district attorneys have gotten clever … so rather than asking for life without parole they’re asking for fifty-, sixty-, seventy-five-year minimums.’
In Missouri, Timothy Willbanks recently challenged his 375-year sentence for kidnapping, robbery and assault, arguing that as he was seventeen at the time of the offences, the ‘virtual life’ term violated his constitutional rights. Not so, ruled the state’s supreme court. Fellow Missourian Bobby Bostic, sentenced to 241 years for a series of armed robberies at seventeen, has petitioned the US Supreme Court, but the justices have yet to decide if they will take the case.
State legislatures that have mandatory life without parole on their statute books have had to write new statutes setting tariffs for juveniles. In Pennsylvania, the mandatory minimum for first-degree murder is now thirty-five years’ imprisonment, or twenty-five if the defendant is less than fifteen years old. Life without parole is still available as a discretionary sentence, irrespective of the defendant’s age.
‘What the court has said is that kids are fundamentally different and that their unique characteristics as children have to be accounted for at sentencing,’ Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth told me. ‘They’ve built this jurisprudence to ensure that adolescents are held to a different standard than adults. The challenge is that Supreme Court decisions don’t implement themselves. There are problems as long as they leave the door open to impose these sentences, and that’s why we think the court needs to ban life without parole for children altogether.’
More than twenty states have already done so. In others, life without parole for juveniles may become as rare as Justice Kennedy envisaged, but prosecutors are reluctant to give it up as a lever to encourage defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges (as around 95 per cent of felony defendants do in America’s plea-driven justice system). Threatened with a strict life term, twenty years can seem like a good deal to a teenager charged with murder, whether he it is guilty or not.
Is the correctional system interested in rehabilitating young violent offenders? Are some crimes so horrendous that, however much the child who committed them matures and reckons with the pain he has caused, he should never be released? Are some people so disturbed that, however reformed they appear, they remain too dangerous to be set free? For men locked up as teenagers, the answers to these questions have immense practical consequences.
In Pennsylvania, every juvenile lifer up for parole must reckon with the ghost of Reginald McFadden, who was sentenced to life for murder as a sixteen-year-old. Twenty-five years later, his sentence was commuted by then Governor Robert Casey after he exposed a plot by fellow prisoners to kill a prison guard. In the ninety-two days he was free, in the summer of 1994, he raped a middle-aged social worker and murdered at least three and possibly four people.
‘Everyone knew that he was still a bad actor, around prison,’ John said, shaking his head, when I brought the case up. ‘Studies show that lifers are the least likely to be the one to commit another crime … but even today, it’s still hard for them to get out because of that Reggie McFadden situation.’
One of the prisoners I corresponded with, Jerry Lashuay, stabbed his twelve-year-old uncle twenty-five times after a trivial argument when he was fifteen. He was a deeply troubled boy, with a violent, manipulative father, and his mother had warned his probation officer that he was ready to snap. Thirty-three years later, he is a devoted Christian with a college degree and a flawless prison disciplinary record, but the prosecutor in Midland County, Michigan, is seeking a new sentence of life without parole, and may well get it.
In November 2017, veteran defence lawyer Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia’s District Attorney, on a promise to radically transform the city’s criminal justice system. ‘This system has broken people, broken families,’ he said in his debate with Republican candidate Beth Grossman, who had been endorsed by the police union. ‘It’s a system that has discriminated against poor people and people who are black or brown in a systemic way.’
As an attorney, Krasner sued Philadelphia’s police department dozens of times. Prosecutors who made their careers under former DA Lynne Abraham (dubbed ‘The Deadliest DA’ for seeking the death penalty more often than any other prosecutor) knew him as an adversary. In his first week, he sacked thirty-one staffers. Online, defiant police officers organized under the hashtag #notmyDA. ‘He’s got that look on his face you just wanna wipe off with a bitch slap,’ wrote one.
Krasner views Pennsylvania as ‘an extreme outlier in excessive sentencing’, and has made re-examining the cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole a priority. Suddenly, men who have served as little as twenty years for murder – far less than they would receive today, by law, if convicted of the same crime – have realistic release prospects. Michael Gibbs, who was sixteen when his accomplice panicked and shot the owner of the corner shop they were trying to rob, was offered twenty-four to life and paroled for time served. Likewise Theodore Burns, who took part in a robbery at a Dunkin’ Donuts and got life because another member of the gang killed an employee.
Both Gibbs and Burns, like John Pace, are African-American. Of the 311 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as children in Philadelphia, 259 are black, thirty-five are Hispanic (a classification that often includes people of mixed race), and just seventeen are white. The city’s population is 42 per cent white. In the case of Pittsburgh – a city that is two-thirds white – fifty-one of fifty-six juvenile lifers are black. Walking in West Philadelphia with John, and talking to people, it sometimes felt as though every other black man in the city had spent some time in prison. Nationally, around 15 per cent of African-American males have done time, and one in three has a felony conviction. The National Research Council estimates that among recent cohorts of black men without a high school diploma, the lifetime risk of imprisonment is 68 per cent.
One afternoon, John invited me to accompany him to the barber, along with Robert Holeman, a friend who went to elementary school and junior high with him, and played ‘dare block’ and ‘coolie’ on the same streets. ‘We made up our own games. Then games came into gangs,’ Holeman told me. ‘You admire the guy on the corner because he got the car, he got the clothes. That’s a track that will get you in the ’hood.’
In his twenties, he was slinging drugs when ‘some things went haywire, someone ended up getting killed’. After his associates testified against him, he was convicted of third-degree murder. Although he ‘walked off’ his sentence twelve years ago, he is still living with the consequences, bounced from job after job when employers run a background check.
‘I can’t be like, “I been to ninety-nine interviews and nobody hired me, I’m going back over there.” I already know what’s over there,’ he said, gesturing through the barber shop’s plate-glass window. He often sees men returning from prison, trying to go straight, then back on the corner. ‘They might not want to take the eight dollars, the ten dollars an hour, and grind theyselves up to twelve.’
The barber, John Wilson, presented me with his card: ‘You’re in better hands at Better Hands! Specializing in Fades/Blends, Blow Outs/Afros, Hustlers/Caesars.’ He had learned his skills in prison, and had mastered the ‘jailhouse cut’, a finishing technique performed with a comb and old-fashioned razor blade. ‘People always say, “Why you keep doing jailhouse cut?” I say, “Listen, if I’ve perfected the art and the craft that enhance the cut, why not use it?”’
When he was nine, his father was sent down for murder. Neighbourhood elders told him: ‘Your dad the truth. Your dad don’t play,’ and he understood that he should be a hard man, too. Inevitably, he got locked up: a year or two here and there for dealing drugs, plus five years for shooting someone. Now, he looks out for kids whose fathers are in prison, slips them a couple of dollars and tells them how much their letters and phone calls mean.
On another trip, walking along 60th Street, I stopped to admire the Imperial Ballroom, a ruined cinema that last showed a film in 1954. A slender young African-American man with a Muslim-style goatee opened the door of the barber shop directly behind me and asked if he could help. When I described the article I was working on, he invited me inside: ‘I just came from where the fella is from. One little mistake and I can be back there.’
He told me to call him Spank. ‘My former life was criminal: street life, selling drugs, harming people, shooting people, the worst of the worst. The worst of Philadelphia. It’s going on right now,’ he said. At nineteen, he was convicted of attempted murder. At twenty-eight, he had been managing his mother’s barber shop for six months, and was determined not to slip up.
‘You can’t forget the type of people that you dealing with because at any moment it can go away again,’ he said. ‘West Philadelphia, it can be sweet, it looks nice, but it can be rough as the jungle sometimes … you’ve got to handle everything with finesse.’ As a parolee, he has to check in with his parole officer once a month, is subject to random drug testing, and must request permission to travel outside the city.
I asked if there was anything or anybody pulling him back to the streets. He shook his head: ‘My freedom is worth more than anything tempting. It’s horrible in there. It’s beautiful out here. I make money, I go to sleep when I want, have some drinks of water when I want, have a shower, be with a woman. I don’t want to be in there!’
In February of this year, I made one last trip to Philadelphia to see John. He had been out for just over a year, and now had two part-time jobs, as an programme associate at the Inside-Out programme and as a juvenile lifer re-entry co-ordinator at the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project. I met him at the YSRP offices, in a conference room filled with second-hand shirts and shoes and donated soap and deodorant, for men leaving prison with next to nothing. The first prisoners to be released in Pennsylvania as a result of the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision were men like John who had spent decades in jail and done everything that was asked of them. For a while, the rate at which they were granted parole was 90 per cent, although this is dropping, as the board considers more contentious cases and men with less time served.
‘When I go back to Malcolm X, or Claude Brown’s book Manchild in the Promised Land, you’ll see the narratives are the same. These are individuals who grew up in the inner city and became a product of that environment but when they’re given that space to reflect on who they are, they begin to transform,’ John said. He viewed his main role as helping to create a ‘sense of agency’ in men who have spent their entire adulthood being told what to do. He described cajoling men in their forties and fifties to think in terms of a career, to take courses in plumbing and carpentry, and to keep their heads up when delivering pizza for tips or working as a security guard for minimum wage, despite knowing that when their employer runs a record check, they are likely to lose the job.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander lays out the many ways the deck is stacked against convicted felons on their release. ‘Old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal,’ she writes. ‘As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.’
John and I talked about some of these barriers to reintegration, and the many ways the criminal justice system disproportionately targets black youth, who are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged with a crime, more likely to be given a custodial sentence. I listed some of the factors creating neighbourhoods where ‘it’s easy to do bad and kind of hard to do good,’ as John’s sister Lisa put it: absent fathers, lack of jobs, lack of wealth and social capital, discriminatory hiring, segregated and under-resourced schools with no guidance counsellors but cops patrolling the hallways. John nodded, indulging me, not disagreeing.
‘When I started to understand the structural and institutional things that created that environment, it made me angry,’ he said. ‘But as I started to grow and mature a little bit I started to get a different perspective: yes, these things exist, but also you still have to take responsibility for your actions.’
His nephew, Marchelle’s son Darryl, had just been sentenced to two-to-five years for possessing drugs with intent to sell, shortly after completing a two-year stretch for the same crime. I asked John how he planned to help, and he answered flatly: ‘I am not going to help him. He need to do time.’
Darryl’s twin brother, Darnell, had been to prison too, but was now out, trying to provide for his three children by selling horses, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. ‘I think he wants to do the right thing. He’s still struggling,’ John said. ‘He’s angry about stuff that we’re talking about – these systemic issues. My conversation with him is, “What you’re saying is correct. But what are you going to do about it? You can’t be out in the street doing wrong.”’
In our many conversations, John wavered from this line just once, when I asked him if he ever felt hard done by. ‘I have some feelings and thoughts about how it’s a shame, about how many lives are messed up because others who are in power choose to do nothing,’ he said. ‘You know it’s an environment that breeds [crime], and you say “take responsibility” … Well, you take responsibility!’ It was the only time I saw his temper rise.
I inquired how his marriage plans were progressing, joking that it would be the perfect ending for my article, and he shot me an amused look: ‘I do not have no marriage plans.’ His family, and Tracy’s, had been asking almost since the day he was released, and the two of them had perfected the art of saying the right thing without quite saying yes.
The day before, he had passed his driving test, and he was planning to buy a cheap car. He needed six more months by himself, he reckoned, and had asked his landlord to extend his lease. ‘That’ll allow me to get all this out, in terms of learning how to live. You have to go through those experiences in your life before you say, “This is where I want to be at.”’ After waiting thirty-two years to begin again, he was in no hurry.
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