These past two Fridays, I went to Graterford Prison with my Crime, Justice, & Media class. We sat down with several juvenile lifers and shared an intelligent and inspiring conversation about everyday life in prison, and the criminal justice system. Suffice to say, it was one of the most captivating moments of my life to date.
There were a total of nine students and our professor, Mike Lyons, that jumped in a SJU van and made the hour trip to Graterford early Friday morning. When we finally got on the road the van was filled with nervous anticipation. We didn’t know what to expect from the inmates we were visiting.
“Is that the prison?” one of my classmates asked, pointing out the van window.
“No, that’s a high school,” Mike answered.
“What’s the difference?” another student jokingly said.
After several jokes at our own expense, our anxiety about the trip lessened until Graterford was in view. Graterford Prison opened in 1929 as Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security penitentiary. It is approximately 31 miles northwest of Philadelphia and can hold roughly 4,000 incarcerated men. The daunting 30-foot high walls completely surround Graterford, making it the most imposing building for miles.
When we finally entered the facility, my classmates and I signed in at the front desk and confirmed which inmate we were there to see. My name was on the visiting list of Kempis Songster (although he is mostly referred to as Ghani). In 1987, Kempis was imprisoned for first-degree murder at the age of 15. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
We sat in the waiting room before each of us was finally called into security. I went through a checkpoint but, unlike airport security, my hands were also tested for cocaine and meth. One lady in front of me was denied access to the visiting room because she was wearing an underwire bra. Another classmate of mine was also not allowed into the facility because she was wearing leggings, which is on the Department of Corrections banned items.
At last, I entered the visiting room. The visiting room is one large space filled with rows and rows of chairs facing each other (there were no glass partitions and, under the watch of a guard, you could share some physical contact). Along the sides of the room are vending machines filled with everything ranging from soda and chips, to hot coffee and Philly cheesesteaks. Because you cannot leave the visiting room and come back, visitors who stay for several hours buy themselves and the person they are visiting meals to eat. For some men, this is the only time they are able to eat candy or have chicken wings.
The group of incarcerated men that we were visiting, including Kempis, were waiting for us when we entered. They had saved several rows of seats for us. Since I was one of the first students to get through security, I had the chance to introduce myself and make small talk with several of the juvenile lifers.
Once everyone had assembled we did introductions. Among the ten of us that traveled from Saint Joe’s, there were eight inmates that we met with. When introductions were complete, John Pace (incarcerated in 1985 at the age of 17) gave a brief history lesson about the legal decisions in the United States that lead to a juvenile being sentenced to life without parole.
- Roper v Simmons (2005) – abolished the death penalty for juveniles
- Graham v Florida (2010) – abolished life without parole sentences for juveniles in non-homicide related cases
- Miller v Alabama (2012) – abolished mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles
We talked a lot about the media and society’s influence in these cases. What shocked me the most about this discussion was how passionate and knowledgeable the inmates were about these issues. They had lived them; they had spent their lives watching them unfold. And, most recently with the Supreme Court hearing in October 2015, about whether or not Miller v Alabama should be applied retroactively, these men never had any hope of living outside prison walls.
During our conversation, we spotted Joseph Ligon on the far side of the room. Joseph Ligon was 15 when he was arrested in 1953. He holds the distinction of being the state’s longest-serving prisoner at a total of 62 years behind bars. The year he was incarcerated, Dwight D. Eisenhower was just elected president, “I Love Lucy” was the No. 1 show on television, and sending a man to the moon was still considered the stuff of science fiction.
By this point in our discussion we had split into smaller groups because the noise in the visiting room became too loud. Two other students and I were lucky enough to be paired with Kempis Songster and John Pace. We were able to ask John and Kempis questions about their life in prison, and what they wanted to do if they were ever released.
Disclaimer: We did not talk about their crimes. They are all guilty of murder, that is without a doubt. We did not speak of their actions before prison out of respect for the families of the victims as a way to keep the integrity of the victims intact without thoughtless conversation.
Even more so than before, I discovered how human these men are. They are not the psychotic monsters that the media and society portrays them to be. Of course they have committed horrible crimes at a young age (none were pre-meditative), but they have had years of maturity and contemplation to realize the shame and remorse of their actions.
When asked about life in prison, Kempis simply said, “I am in here, I am not of here.”
All of the juvenile lifers have taken the time and effort to finish their education and become career oriented. They know more about what they want to do with their life than I do! This dedication to academics is notable because the state does not grant juvenile lifers opportunities to better themselves. In the state’s eyes, it is a waste of resources for someone who will never have the chance to better their community or society. So, instead, they fight for classes, taking up to 13 years to finish one degree.
My second trip to Graterford Prison was similar to the first, except there were a few new juvenile lifers to converse with. There was also a chance for them to ask us any questions they had.
When Kempis learned that I lived near Niagara Falls he asked, “Do they really turn it off at night?”
It was then that I realized, despite all the knowledge and maturity he gained behind bars, in some ways he is still a child.
I laughed and told him that there was no way to stop such a beautiful force of nature.
“I would really love to visit there someday,” he said.
Believe it or not, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in jail. There are currently approximately 2,500 juvenile lifers around the country. Pennsylvania has the highest count with 500 juvenile lifers behind bars. It is a reality that Kempis and the others might die in prison. But, hopefully, they might one day have the chance to go back into the world and change it for the better.