America’s “longest juvenile lifer” recently walked out of prison a free man. Joe Ligon spoke to BBC World Service about spending nearly seven decades in jail, why he waited so long for freedom, and how he intends to spend the rest of his days.
“I’ve never been alone, but I am a loner. I prefer to be alone as much as I possibly can. Being in prison, I’ve been in a single cell all this time, from the time of my arrest all the way up until my release.
“That helps people like me, who want to be alone – I was the type of person, once I went in the cell and closed the door, whatever was going on, I didn’t see or hear nothing. When we were allowed to have the radio and TV – that was my company.”
It’s perhaps fair to say that prison life rather suited Joe Ligon, to a degree. It allowed him to keep his head down, his mouth shut and out of trouble – all lessons, he says, he has learned in his 68 years behind bars.
And when it came time to retire to his cell at the end of the day, it didn’t bother him there was no one else there. In fact, keeping his own company was something of a considered choice.
“I had no friends inside. I had no friends outside. But most people that I associated with… I treated them as though they were a friend. And we were cool, we were alright with each other,” he says.https://buy.tinypass.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=tYOkq7qlAI&templateId=OTBYI8Q89QWC&templateVariantId=OTV0YFYSXVQWV&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EXAWX60BX4NU&iframeId=offer_0e763acc7b457c03340a-0&displayMode=inline&widget=template
“But I didn’t use that word friend, I learned that that choice of the word means a whole lot to a person like me. And a lot of people say that [if you’re a] friend… you can be making a big mistake.”
Ligon has, by his own admission, always been the solitary sort. Growing up in the country with his maternal grandparents in Birmingham, Alabama, he didn’t have many friends and instead remembers fond times with his family, such as the Sundays they spent together watching his other grandfather preach in a local church.
He was 13 when he moved from the deep south to Philadelphia to live in a blue-collar neighborhood with his nurse mum, mechanic dad and younger brother and sister. He struggled in school and could neither read nor write. He didn’t play sports and as for friends, they weren’t much of a feature.
“I didn’t do too much hanging out. I was the type of person that had one or two friends, that was it for me – I didn’t go for crowds.”
When Ligon “got into trouble” on a Friday evening in 1953, he didn’t really know the people he was with then either. He had met up with a couple of people he knew casually and as they walked around the neighborhood, they bumped into some other people who were drinking.
“We started asking people for some money so we could get some more wine and one thing led to another…
He trails off. But he admits the night ended in a stabbing spree in which he was involved, violence which left two people dead and six injured.
Ligon was the first to be arrested. At the police station, he says he quite truthfully couldn’t tell officers who he had been with that night.
“Even the two I did know, I didn’t know their names, I knew them by their nicknames.”
Ligon says he was taken to a police station far from his home in Rodman Street and held for five days, without access to legal help. He says he was angry for a long time that his parents were turned away when they tried to visit.
That week, the then 15-year-old was charged with murder – an accusation he has always denied although he has since accepted in an interview with US broadcaster CBS that he stabbed someone who survived and has expressed remorse.
“They [the police] started giving us statements to sign, that implicated me in murder. I didn’t murder anybody.”