The Atlantic

A Prison Lifer Comes Home

Imprisoned for decades for a crime he committed as a juvenile, “Red Dog” Fennell was released as an old man into a baffling world.
Source: Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Haywood “Red Dog” Fennell was finishing up work for the day, headed back to his cell at Pennsylvania’s largest-capacity prison, when a friend called him over, eager to share the news that had lit up the men’s tiny TV screens and sent shouts and whistles echoing down the long, cavernous cell block. It was June 25, 2012, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. Pennsylvania had imposed that sentence on more kids than any other state—some 500 of them, many now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Men who still had their mothers called home to share the news. The jailhouse lawyers got creative with petitions to speed their release. The religious men said prayers. Fennell didn’t see much cause to celebrate. Forty-eight years of incarceration for a role in a fatal mugging when he was 17, and 11 denied commutation applications, had hardened him against fantasies of freedom. Besides, Fennell was 20 years old by the time he was convicted and sentenced. He figured the Supreme Court decision didn’t even apply to him.

But then lawyers started coming from the Philadelphia public defender’s office, driving up the country road to Graterford state prison, set in what had once been rolling farm country and turned into suburban sprawl during Fennell’s time inside. Pennsylvania was resisting the ruling, declaring that it wasn’t retroactive, but the lawyers said it was only a matter of time before a court would disagree. Indeed, in 2016, a follow-up Supreme Court decision made it clear: The 2012 decision must be applied retroactively to the more than 2,000 people like Fennell who had been serving mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

Today, Pennsylvania, which incarcerated more juvenile lifers than any other state, has become the nation’s leader in releasing them: Just over 200 have been let out so far. Criminal-justice experts are looking to the state’s experience as a test case for states around the country grappling with the reality that ending mass incarceration, an increasingly bipartisan goal, will eventually require releasing long-term offenders convicted of violent crimes, who make up a large proportion of those in prison. While the implications of this are often framed as part of a broad public-safety debate, Fennell’s experience of it is profoundly personal: How do you find your place in the world as an old man when you’ve never lived in it as an adult?

Fennell was 17 years old when two officers arrived at his mother’s house in the middle of a May night in 1968 to take him to the police station. They denied his mother’s pleas to accompany him.

According to later testimony from one of those officers, Fennell sat with him, and no lawyer, for about an hour that morning before agreeing to make a statement about the night in question. Fennell later testified that the officer told him that if he made a statement, he would not get more than a year in jail. He felt pressured and scared. “Nobody there was my color, nobody my age—all cops,” he said later. “They took advantage of my ignorance, of my family’s ignorance of the legal system.”

In the signed statement, he said that, late on May 19, 1968, he had come upon a brawl. He joined in, mistaking the man on the

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