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Conversations with Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Lifers

“It really felt like I was born all over again”

Spencer Norris
Aug 9, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: luoman/E+/Getty Images

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I n the United States today, there’s approximately 2,500 juvenile lifers, or inmates who were admitted into the prison system in adolescence with life sentences (most often for murder) and without the possibility of parole. Just over 500 of them live in Pennsylvania alone, making it the most draconian of any state towards young offenders. This high juvenile lifer population is owed to a mandatory life sentencing statute for juvenile murderers that existed until 2012, when the Supreme Court struck down such sentencing practices as unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama.

Many states hesitated to extend Miller retroactively to those already convicted but were forced to by the Court four years later under Montgomery v. Louisiana. Suddenly, 2,500 offenders were eligible for resentencing, and 111 convicts in Pennsylvania have been released to date. The majority of them are from Philadelphia, like Douglas Hollis and Tyrone Jones, who both entered the system when they were teenagers and spent several decades there. I asked the latter — Ty for short — what it felt like to have his own wardrobe for the first time since he was eighteen.

“Wow.” He was a month shy of 60 when he was released.

I asked the former what it felt like stepping through the prison gate for the first time in almost 42 years.

“Surreal.” He had entered when he was sixteen and left at age 58.

It’s hard for someone who has never been incarcerated to imagine what the experience of a juvenile lifer is, or what freedom really tastes like for them , and it can be even harder to imagine what it’s like for a lifer to start over.

“It really felt like I was born all over again,” said Ty. “I had to learn how to drive a car, I had to learn technology, had to learn to do things on my own. For the whole 43 years, I never had to do anything on my own.”

It’s impossible to plan for every contingency; the problems that will face a lifer are as unique as anyone else’s. That being said, the Department of Corrections often fails to prepare lifers for hurdles which could have been addressed during their incarceration. Doug and Ty shared their experiences and what they hope will be different for the next wave of lifers if they are released.

Coming home

On the other side of the prison walls, both men were greeted first by camera crews and their families’ open arms, then by harsher realities.

“The first thing I had to do was get an identification card. Nobody knew who I was. The second thing, I had to get a Social Security card. I couldn’t get a Social Security card unless I had an ID,” said Ty recalling his first steps. “I didn’t have none of that. It was like I was nowhere in the system.” His life had been defined by the system for 43 years, and yet it had neglected to provide him with the most fundamental forms of documentation upon release.

His living conditions proved unstable too. In the year and a half since he came home, Ty learned more about his family than he could have ever known inside. While living with his sister, he realized how little they really knew about each other. “I never really had no brother-and-sister relationship with them. I never knew her likes or dislikes, I never knew really anything about her. She was just my sister — we had the same mother, we had the same father, that was it.”

Fissures emerged, and after living with her for nine months, he was forced to move out. He moved in with a nephew — who was also a parolee — where he stayed for about six months before his parole officer required him to find a new place (Ty alleges the officer’s supervisor felt squeamish about having two parolees under the same roof). He’s now living with a cousin in Harrisburg, Vermont, while he saves up and looks for his own place, working as a janitor making $10 an hour.

The job hunt

Doug was more fortunate. His wife owned a home in the suburbs of Millersburg, Pennsylvania, so he was able to come back to a stable living environment when he left. What he and Ty had in common was the initial friction of finding employment.

Douglas Hollis working as a panelist at the First International Conference on Decreasing Recidivism in Linthicum, MD. Photo courtesy of Douglas Hollis

Doug found work manufacturing vinyl at a plant near his home, and says, “Realistically, I’m blessed to have the job that I have. What employer is gonna hire a guy that’s never had a job — that has no true work experience other than his prison record?”

By definition, the juvenile lifers were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes. Generally speaking, that means no high school diploma, no work history, and less than a quarter of their lives spent out in society. Many of them — Ty and Doug included — didn’t even know how to drive when they were released. This is an important distinction between juvenile lifers and others that went into the system for comparable amounts of time later in life, and it makes a hard sell for anything beyond menial work.

Doug has certifications in plumbing and building maintenance, and he was sure this would help him when he was released. He quickly found out that the techniques they were teaching him were outdated. He had been taught to work on cast iron and galvanized piping during his training. The first isn’t used in any modern plumbing installations and the latter was recently outlawed in many municipalities because of the toxicity it introduces into water supplies. He had almost no experience working with PVC, which is the de facto standard for waterworks in modern housing development. Doug speculates that inmates weren’t allowed to use PVC because of security restrictions (PVC is a durable plastic and can easily be filed into a shiv or other contraband tool).

Ty has had similar troubles. He earned his GED while in prison, along with his certifications as a plumber and an electrician. He was a frequent face in the electrician’s workshop for a full 18 years, yet he’s been unable to find work that aligns with his training, which would almost surely bring in a higher wage than his job in Harrisburg.

Those difficulties are only compounded when an inmate tries to prepare for the service-oriented jobs most in demand today, many of which didn’t even exist when lifers first went into the system. Access to computers is incredibly limited, and pushing beyond core functionalities can actually get an inmate in trouble. Doug was able to learn how to use Excel, but if he had attempted to password protect anything — a practice that’s obvious and essential to anyone with a smartphone today — he would have been placed in solitary confinement. In that atmosphere of paranoia, it’s hard to imagine staff allowing an inmate to learn how to program.

These circumstances do need to be qualified. According to Joanna Adjoian, Esq., the co-founder of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, many inmates have the opportunity to develop substantial resumés while in prison and can land jobs quickly. “I think it’s a matter of how many opportunities you’re given to apply the training you received,” she explained, pointing out that there’s incredible variability in the outcomes of inmates based on where they’re incarcerated.

True enough. John Pace, a former juvenile lifer and employee of the Project, was able to attain both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree from Villanova in general studies while incarcerated, even though many don’t even attain a high school diploma (again this should be qualified by the fact that Pennsylvania inmates are above the national average for GED attainment). To that end, organizations like YSRP provide resources to help lifers reintegrate, helping to fill gaps left by a lack of life experience.

John Pace. Photo: Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project

Even so, Doug and Ty did everything right in prison to prepare for their release, and they were still coming back into a world they were vocationally unprepared for. Even though they have stable, low-wage jobs, and roofs over their heads, both just started working in their sixties and have no savings. Retirement seems like a remote impossibility.

The upshots

To be a released juvenile lifer is to be a relentless optimist. Commutations of life sentences in Pennsylvania have dwindled from a peak of 251 under Governor Milton Shapp in the 1970s to two since Governor Tom Wolf’s term began in 2015. Some administrations didn’t grant any. Believing you’d ever get out already required a remarkable capacity for hope, so optimism is in no short supply.

Ty is unmarried; annualized, his salary is less than $20,000 a year. But he still hopes for the same thing he promised to himself when he was 16: a wife, two children, and a home in the hills. He keeps looking forward.

“I’ve seen a lot, heard a lot, been through a lot and just been in prison for something I didn’t do [he was wrongfully convicted because of a coerced confession]. That used to just nag at me, day in and day out, all day long — it used to just nag at me, nag at me… I’m not going to just let the fact that they took 40-something years of my life away from me for something I ain’t do, and ain’t want it to keep eating me up.”

“We’re the only family we know. We’re like support systems to each other.”

Still, it can be difficult “out there” without a support group to lean on. Many wound up juvenile lifers because they didn’t have a supportive family in the first place (child neglect is a strong predictor of violent behavior). So they turn to each other. Many lifers participate in specialized support groups where they can talk about the sorts of issues unique to them. As Doug explained, “We’re the only family we know. We’re like support systems to each other… I told my wife when I was coming home that I’m getting out, but I’m not forgetting where I came from. Because for 41 and a half years, they were my family.”

In spite of difficulties — emotional, material, and otherwise — the lifers have been remarkably successful back out in the world. To date, only one of the more than 111 lifers released has been re-admitted on new charges (Victor Scott was charged with possession of a firearm) — a recidivism rate of less than one percent.

Attorney Adjoian and John Pace explained that there’s no emergent pattern in the problems that face lifers; each will have a set of challenges unique to their circumstances and have to walk their own path. However, the apparent commonality for juvenile lifers on the outside is that life is looking up.

“I can’t go back and restore the life that I took. The only thing I can do now is to try and live my own life in a way that gives purpose or meaning to doing what is right,” says Doug. He hopes to spend the coming years working with children, steering them down a path different than his own. With a second chance at life, he has the opportunity to do so.

Spencer Norris

Written by

Data Scientist, Freelance Journalist.

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