For the first time in a generation, Pennsylvania prisons are releasing convicted murderers by the dozen.
In the last year, 72 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 has violated parole..
The lifers are trying to organize their own reentry program. A peer-support group led by Pace meets monthly.
Former inmates say the transition has also been jarring, confusing, difficult, and sometimes frightening.
There are technological mishaps. Juvenile lifers have, like everybody else, discovered the annoyance of the group text.
They’re figuring out how to dress themselves. Almost anything is better than a prison uniform, but fashion can be tricky. And of course there is 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. One inmate said “Everyone is disconnected, walking down the street with headphones”
Many are not yet making a living wage, but some are highly educated.
My boy Mike 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.
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.
The Department of Corrections has helped where it can, working with lifers to obtain identification and offering a six-month housing voucher.