Not the Only Ones in Need of Redemption

By Felix Rosado

It's after midnight and I can't sleep. Yesterday I was part of a powerful gathering of about 30 men fighting death by incarceration (DBI) sentences here at Phoenix State Prison and the heads of both the state and Philadelphia main victim advocacy agencies. The idea of redemption came up over and over.

It's all we want, what anyone who's ever made a mistake wants: a chance to be redeemed.

But that's not what's keeping me up.

This morning I learned from a friend that Trina Garnett might be expressing hesitancy about the prospect of going home after over four decades caged. Hers is a story branded in my memory. I apologize in advance if I slip on any of the details. But here's what I remember from a Nation article aptly titled "Throwaway People" that came out shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory Death By Incarceration sentences (also known as Life Without Parole)  in 2012 for people who committed crimes while under 18.

At 14, Trina was accused of setting a fire that resulted in the death of two boys. Her upbringing was horrific: poverty, neglect, abuse, unthinkable violence, homelessness, eating from trash cans, mental health deterioration. As a girl in state prison, she was raped by a guard and impregnated. Chained to a hospital bed, she gave birth to a child that was immediately ripped away from her. Over time she aged, developed MS, and has been wheelchair bound for years now.

I don't know the details of why she isn't home yet. But if my friend, who comes from them same city as Trina, Chester, is even somewhat correct, this wouldn't be my first time hearing a story like this.

The longest incarcerated human being on the planet, Joe Ligon, is still here at Phoenix. Some say he refused a resentencing plea deal because it came with lifetime parole. Some speculate prison is all he knows and fears freedom. I get it.

Joe, at age 15, was arrested for a South Philly neighborhood stabbing that happened in 1953—a year before Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation in the US was perfectly legal. Dwight Eisenhower had just taken over the Oval Office from Harry Truman the month before. A newspaper article at the time referred to Joe as "colored" and "orthogenically backward."

What kind of "justice" system locks kids up until they're geriatric with little or no desire to be free when an opportunity miraculously appears? What have we done? And are continuing to do? Brooks in Shawshank Redemption is a real thing. In America, that is.

Some say the 15-year minimum for a parole review proposed in a legislative attempt to end PA's other death penalty is too low. It came up several times at our meeting yesterday. Only in the US, and PA more specifically, can that be said. By any ordinary measure, a decade and a half represents a significant chunk of one's life. But we're not dealing with an ordinary system. In Shawshank, Red tells Andy: "Hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane." I'd add, "Only when it's false—or too late."

It seems to me those of us fighting DBI sentences aren't the only ones in need of redemption. Our struggle is contained in a legal system that also needs to be redeemed—arguably more so. The difference is that lawmakers have the ability and all the power to do it. We, on the other hand, don't.


Felix “Phill” Rosado is cofounder and co-coordinator of Let’s Circle Up, a restorative justice project based at Graterford State Prison. Originally from Reading, PA, he has been fighting a death by incarceration sentence since 1995. He also co-coordinates the Alternatives to Violence Project and is a member of the Inside-Out Graterford Think Tank. In 2016, he earned his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Villanova University. He is an advisor to Decarcerate PA, as well as to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today Exhibit and Returning Citizens Tour Guide Program. As a member of Right 2 Redemption (a founding organization of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration) and Lifelines, he seeks to end the practice of caging humans until death.