Picture this! You’re 17 years old, you do something really horrible and get sent to prison. You spend your next 60 years behind bars and somehow you manage to endure, becoming one of the people who outlived insane prison sentences.When you finally walk free again, you’re 77 years old, the world you once knew is completely changed and you have no idea how to live anymore.
This is just one of the mind-blowing stories you’re going to hear today about people who outlived the longest prison sentences ever.
People Who Outlived Insane Prison Sentences and Their Heartbreaking Stories
The stories of these people who outlived insane prison sentences will make you appreciate your life even more. Get some popcorn, it’s going to be a heavy read!
10. Clifford Hampton – 60 years
Clifford Hampton, a Louisiana native, was just 17 years old when he was sent to prison. Back in 1958, he killed his 18-year-old childhood girlfriend in a fit of rage because she refused to have sex with him. He stabbed her 28 times, which is just horrific. Realizing the gravity of what he’d done, Clifford turned himself in. Even though he was a minor, they tried him as an adult and sentenced him to life in prison.
He ended up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary – commonly known as “Angola”, the state’s only adult prison. It was a rough place, housing both men and women at the time. But Clifford’s troubles didn’t stop there. Three years into his sentence, he stabbed another inmate to death over some rumors, landing him a second life sentence.
Now, back then in Louisiana, a life sentence meant serving 10 years and 6 months before you could be considered for release. So, with his two life sentences, Clifford was looking at 21 years before potentially getting out. But in 1979, just as he was nearing that mark, they changed the law. Suddenly, he had to serve the full sentence without any chance of parole or probation, unless he got an official pardon.
Here’s Why He’s One Of The People Who Outlived Insane Prison Sentences
Fast forward to 2012, and the United States Supreme Court rules in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile convicts tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison without parole must have some form of a legal release method. So, Clifford found some hope and began trying to regain his freedom again. But it was not easy.
See, he hadn’t been a role model in prison either. His record in prison wasn’t great – he had sex offenses, was caught with homemade weapons, and refused to take a sex offender treatment class. All this stuff came up during his parole hearing.
Later on, in 2018, his initial charge of murder for the killing of Bertha Ann Gibson was reduced to manslaughter, but her family publicly opposed and that made things even more complicated for Clifford’s parole hearing.
Anyways, in 2019, he was resentenced and paroled, at the age of 78, after more than 60 years in prison.
9. Charles Edret Ford – 64 years
Charles Edret Ford is the longest serving prisoner in Maryland and his story is one of those that really make you stop and think.
He was convicted of murder way back in 1952. Fast forward to 2015, and suddenly Ford’s case is back in the spotlight. He got a retrial because his original trial had some big legal issues.
In 2016, after an unbelievable 64 years, Ford was finally released and moved to a nursing home. But here’s the part that really gets to you. Ford might have been innocent the whole time. He said that he was forced into confessing to the murder.
Ford talked about how the police roughed him up, hitting him with a nightstick, and how he ended up in jail. During his trial, he was up against an all-white jury, and there was even one juror who knew him but wasn’t removed. The witnesses for the state couldn’t even agree on what he was wearing – one said a light coat and dark pants, another said the opposite.
Ford always felt that he didn’t get the defense he should have. Also, there’s no record of who testified or if any of them are still around. It’s a tough pill to swallow, thinking about spending most of your life in prison for something you might not have done.
8. Howard Christensen – 64 years
Howard Christensen, 16 and Norman Westberg, 17, were responsible for one of the most notorious murders in South Dakota history, one that prompted the state Legislature to reinstate the death penalty in 1939, for those committing first degree murder or kidnapping in which the victim’s body is harmed.
On May 21, 1937, Ada Carey, a 26-year-old school teacher picks up two teenage hitchhikers on her way home from visiting a friend in Gettysburg. The hitchhikers are, as you might have guessed, 16-year-old Howard Christensen and 17-year-old Norman Westberg. They kidnap her, beat her up with a hammer and shoot her dead in an attempted highway robbery.
The two murderers are then sentenced to life without parole. Westberg hangs himself in prison in 1943, but Christensen endures.
In the 1970s, his sentence is commuted to 200 years, and in 2001, he is finally paroled and moved into a nursing home, after 64 years in prison. He dies 2 years later, at 82.
Howard Christensen was slightly demented from the beginning. He would reportedly harass visitors, refuse to change clothes or bathe in prison. Doctors would give him electric shock treatments to make him more docile. He was, what you would call, a very “difficult” person, but he outlived his prison sentence. It’s a wild and sad story.
7. Richard Honeck – 64 years and 44 days
Unlike many on this list, Richard Honeck had a pretty good life before things went south. His dad was a wealthy business man selling farm equipment and Richard himself worked as a telegraph operator. Seems like a decent start to life, right?
But then, in 1899, when Honeck was just 20, he and his buddy Herman Hundhausen decided to do something really stupid. They busted into the room of Walter F. Koeller, who used to be Honeck’s school friend. The beef between them started when Koeller testified against Honeck and Hundhausen a few years back for some fires they were accused of setting in their hometown, Hermann, Missouri.
So, Honeck and Hundhausen were out for revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in detail. However, Koeller was found by the police stabbed in the back in his chair, and the evidence led them to Honeck, who was eventually sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Joliet Prison, in Illinois.
But his troubles didn’t stop there. In 1912, he stabbed the assistant warden with a knife he made himself. For that, he got 20 days in solitary confinement and had to lug around a ball and chain for six months. It seems like that experience really hit home, because his prison record got clean after that incident.
Here’s Why He’s One of The People Who Outlived Insane Prison Sentences
Richard was later transferred to the Southern Illinois Penitentiary, where he kept his nose clean, working in the prison bakery for 25 years.
Fast forward 64 years and 44 days, and Honeck is finally out of prison. It’s now 1963, and he’s got to figure out how to live in a world that’s changed a ton. His niece, Clara Orth, helped him adjust to life on the outside. Then, in 1971, he moved into a nursing home, where he lived until he passed away in 1976 at the ripe old age of 97. Quite the life story, huh?
6. Clarence Marshall – 64 years and 70 days
Clarence Marshall is another guy who ended up setting a record nobody really wants. Back in 1950, Clarence got himself into serious trouble. He was convicted of armed robbery and also for assaulting someone without a weapon, but with the intent to rob and steal.
There’s not a whole lot of info out there about Clarence’s life or what really went down. What we do know is that he ended up spending a really long time in prison—64 years and 70 days, to be exact. That’s a lifetime for most people, making him the longest-serving prisoner in the state of Michigan – that’s a record no one wants to achieve.
Finally, in 2015, Clarence got paroled. Can you imagine that? Walking out of prison after more than six decades?
5. Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby – 66 years and 123 days
Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby served 66 years and 123 days at Indiana State Prison from 1908 to 1974 after stabbing a man during a poker game that turned into a bar fight.
In 1907, Van Dyke and a man named James Brown were playing a game of five card stud poker in a saloon in Anderson, Illinois. They started fighting about it. During the altercation, the two men were cursing at one another, and since Grigsby was an African-American, racial slurs were uttered, followed by Brown pulling a knife on Grigsby. So, Van Dyke left the bar only to return with a knife of his own. Apparently, Brown picked up a chair and threw it at Grigsby who then lunged at Brown with his knife and stabbed him to death.
Afterwards, Grigsby pleaded guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair. He was delivered to the Indiana State Penitentiary in a horse-drawn cart, on August 8 1908. It was the same year that the four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower Ford model T first came out. He was released in December 1974, when the second generation of Ford Mustang was released. That’s 66 years and 123 days spent in prison!
What’s even more striking is that he spent about 50 years in a ward for the insane. Finally, when a doctor examined him, he was declared “not crazy”. Despite being a model prisoner who passed his time reading the Bible, dictionaries and encyclopedias, all his 30-something parole applications got denied before he finally got released in 1974.
The Sad Story Of People Who Outlived Insane Prison Sentences Continues
When Van Dyke finally got out, “the outside world” was too much for him. Imagine being locked away for nearly 7 decades. All the time while he was behind bars, the world had seen the arrival of the first traffic lights, fortune cookies, supermarkets, tow trucks, light switches, grocery bags, band-aids, bubble gum, car radios, credit cards, barcodes, radar guns and many more. 13 US presidents had come and gone. The FBI had been established. Alaska and Hawaii had become U.S states. Van Dyke’s life, in stark contrast, was a tale of stagnation within the prison walls.
That’s why, upon his release, he struggled to adapt to this new world and requested to return to prison. He spent an additional 17 months there before finally leaving for good at the age of 91. He then moved to the Marion County Health Care Center, a place where his daily life could be structured in a way he was accustomed to. After nearly 7 decades in prison, he basically needed to be told when to get up, when to eat, when to bathe and go to bed.
Well, Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby’s life story really makes you think about what it’s like to be locked up for so long. Imagine spending most of your life in prison and then coming out to a world that’s completely different. It’s tough for people like him to fit back in after being away for so many years. It makes you wonder if enough is being done to help folks adjust when they get out after such a long time. It’s not just about being free; it’s about learning how to live in a world that’s moved on without you.
4. Joseph Ligon – 67 years and 54 days
Joseph Ligon is America’s longest-serving prisoner convicted to a life sentence as a minor.
Born in 1938 in Philadelphia, Ligon had a tough start in life, growing up on a farm in Alabama and dropping out of school very early without learning to read or write.
His life took a drastic turn in 1953 when he was just 15. That year, Ligon and his friends began a night of drinking. At some point, they started robbing people
for money to buy more alcohol. So, things got ugly and two men were tragically murdered by Ligon’s group of drunk teenagers that night.
At just 15 years old, Ligon was arrested and denied legal representation or family visitation until he signed a confession. He and his friends had a one-day trial, where they were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. While Ligon admitted to stabbing one of the victims, who survived, he expressed remorse for his actions and denied responsibility for the two murders.
One of the Longest Outlived Insane Prison Sentences
In the early 1970s, Ligon and his pals were offered clemency, but he was the only one who refused it because acceptance meant being put on parole. He preferred to maintain his innocence rather than accept a deal that implied guilt.
The turning point in Ligon’s story came with the US Supreme Court’s ruling that juvenile life sentences without parole were unconstitutional. This ruling led to his release in 2021, after 67 years and 54 days spent behind bars on a sentence of murder by association.
His case and life story raises some critical questions about the nature of justice for minors. If tried today for the same crime, a 15-year-old Joe Ligon would likely face a much lighter sentence, possibly manslaughter, and 5 to 10 years in a correctional facility. Giving an adult sentence to children is not a good idea. Ligon’s story represents an important shift in the legal and moral perception of juvenile justice over the years.
3. John Phillips – 68 years and 236 days
John Phillips is North Carolina’s longest-serving inmate. In 1952, aged 18, he was arrested for the rape of a 4-year-old girl. He was tested at a state mental hospital for black people where he was declared a “moron”, with the mind of a 7-year-old.
Phillips became North Carolina’s longest-serving inmate, known by the nickname Peanut. Over the years, he lost any desire to leave the confines of the prison. In his own words during a 2019 interview, at the ripe age of 85, he said, “I ain’t going nowhere. Too many fools out there.”
Finally, on March 9th, 2021, after spending 68 years and 236 days behind bars, he was released on parole. This parole is set to end on March 8, 2026.
Phillips’ early life was tough. Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, he was one of seven children raised by a single mother in a small one-bedroom house on a dirt road. He hardly knew his father.
Things were tough for him
The records of his criminal case are limited, with only a few pages found in the North Carolina State Archives. Local newspapers of the time have some articles preserved on microfiche. His prison file is extensive, but officials haven’t released any records or discussed his case publicly.
From the little information available, we know that in the spring of 1952, a 4-year-old girl was attacked near a playground. Three days later, doctors at a hospital for black residents – this was 1952 North Carolina, after all – reported that she had been sexually molested. Phillips was arrested the following day.
Though Phillips pleaded guilty, urged by his lawyer, he has always said that he was innocent. When asked why he entered a guilty plea, Philips said it was because they told him it was the only way he could live. Back in 1952, especially for a black man in North Carolina, rape was a capital offense.
2. Paul Geidel Jr. – 68 years and 245 days
Paul Geidel Jr. was incarcerated in 1911 when he was only 17 years old and released in 1980, at 86. He died 7 years later, in a nursing home.
Paul made it in the Guinness World Records of that time as the longest-serving prison inmate in the US to finally be released on parole. He is now the 2nd in that classification.
Geidel was born in Connecticut in 1894. His father, a German-born alcoholic who ran a saloon, died when Paul was just five, leading him to spend much of his childhood in an orphanage. Dropping out of school at 14, he worked in hotels in Hartford and New York City, a path that would ultimately lead to his tragic fate.
At 17, while working as a bellhop in a New York City hotel, Geidel committed a crime that would define the rest of his life. He robbed and murdered a 73-year-old wealthy broker, a guest at the hotel. He broke into his room, suffocated the poor fella to death with a rag filled with chloroform and left with only a few bucks. Arrested two days later, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life.
Insane Prison Sentence
Geidel began his sentence at Sing Sing and was a very good prisoner, which initially seemed to shorten his path to parole. However, a turn of events in 1926 saw him declared legally insane and transferred to the Dannemora State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1972, he was moved to a correctional facility designed for the elderly inmates. He became a regular with prison officials who sometimes took him out to a baseball game or other such activities.
In August 1974, when he was 80 years old, he was granted parole but he didn’t want to leave. It’s understandable. You spend 63 years in prison from the age of 17, the prison becomes your home. You have no family, no job, nothing else in the outside world. You’re almost afraid to get out of prison. So, Geidel chose to remain in prison for almost 6 more years.
In 1980, he finally left the Fishkill facility and is believed to have lived out the remainder of his days in a New York nursing home, until the age of 93 when he died. What a life!
These guys have outlived insane prison sentences. But do you want to learn what’s the most insane of them all?
1. Francis Clifford Smith – 70 years and 31 days
Francis Clifford Smith’s story is as unbelievable as it is heart-wrenching. He is currently the longest-serving prison inmate in the United States whose sentence ended with his parole.
Born way back in 1924, his life took a dark turn in the summer of 1949. He was part of a crew that decided to rob the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. That night, things went terribly wrong, and a security guard named Grover Hart was fatally shot.
After the incident, Smith was found with items connecting him to the crime. The evidence included stolen goods from the Yacht Club and a gun that matched the bullet casings found at the murder scene. He was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1950 and was sentenced to death by electrocution.
He spent 4 years on death row, narrowly avoiding execution several times. In 1954, just hours before his scheduled execution, his sentence was commuted to life in prison due to doubts about his guilt.
He might have been innocent
Over the years, several key pieces of evidence against Smith were found inadmissible. Witnesses admitted to lying, another man confessed to the murder, and the lead investigator stated he believed Smith was innocent. Despite this, Smith’s attempts for a retrial were denied.
In 1967, while serving his sentence at a prison farm in Enfield, Smith made a daring escape. He managed to evade capture for 12 days, leading authorities on a significant manhunt.
Later on, he was granted parole. He experienced life outside prison walls for 10 months. Unfortunately, because of a violation he committed, he was returned to prison in 1975. That marked his last taste of freedom until recently.
In September 2020, Smith was released from prison after 70 years of continuous imprisonment. The Board of Pardons and Paroles placed him at a privately-run facility contracting with the state to house elderly paroles. The most heart-wrenching thing of Francis Clifford Smith’s story is the haunting possibility that he was innocent all along. Imagine living to be 100 years old, yet spending a staggering 80% of your life behind bars. Crazy, right? At least you’ve outlived insane prison sentences.