On growing up and keeping faith through 40 years in prison

 This photograph shows a detail of a snapshot of Tyrone Jones in his prison cell in in the 1980s. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

This photograph shows a detail of a snapshot of Tyrone Jones in his prison cell in in the 1980s. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

It’s just over a two-hour drive to the State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania where Tyrone Jones now lives. No recorders or phones are allowed when speaking with inmates, so I take a notebook and a few pencils on a recent weekday visit.

The small lobby is filled with light that pours in from a wall of windows. The room has a clean, utilitarian feeling, as does the rest of the place. About a dozen people sit waiting for visiting hours to begin.

Two women next to me greet each other warmly. They had met during prior visits to their loved ones. The younger woman, in her 20s or 30s, in tall heels, tells the older woman that she has to wait another year for the release of the man she’s coming to visit. Her work schedule has changed, so her visits to the prison will be on a different day and she may not cross paths with the older woman again.

Another woman talks about the challenges of shuttling her small child along on prison visits.

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A U.S. flag, visible through the wall of glass, whips in the wind out front. A prison employee leads a brown dog through the lobby, where the animal curiously sniffs the lockers and some of the waiting visitors. A middle-aged woman in a baseball hat, jeans and white sneakers paces back and forth inside the entrance to pass the time.

Two men who appear to be released prisoners walk through the lobby. One of them, who seems to be in his 50s, leaves wearing a light-blue shirt and large dark-blue jeans with an elastic waistband. The other man leaving is greeted in the lobby by two men who appear to be family. Few words are exchanged. He follows them to the car in the parking lot with a bit of a stoop but a strong, purposeful stride.

After passing through a metal detector, I walk down a long, light-filled corridor. I am surprised by the amount of light in this place. I had expected it to be more dimly lit or to have fewer windows. I can see circles of barbed wire on the fence outside.

I pass a guard and walk into a room that feels like a high school cafeteria with blue-and-white tile floors and a few vending machines along the wall. A line of yellow tape runs along the floor in front of the machines, marking where inmates are not allowed to cross. A guard sits in the front of the room.

Visiting hours

Tyrone Jones walks in a few minutes later wearing a maroon jumpsuit with yellow trim on the shirt sleeves and “D.O.C.” in light pink letters on the back. Jones and the other inmates aren’t wearing handcuffs, and some lounge on chairs in the common room with their visitors. Jones enters the children’s room, where kids’ decorations and toys line the walls, where I’m sitting with a representative from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, the organization that is representing him. Jones is a juvenile lifer, but he claims his innocence.

Jones has short hair, a tidy mustache and a deep voice. During our hour-plus discussion, his speech is remarkably free of the “ums” and “likes” so common in everyday speech. His words seem carefully chosen.

Jones tells me there was a celebratory mood in the prison when the Supreme Court ruling came down a year ago. He says it gave hope to him and many others.

He says he spends his days in prison trying to stay active, because he doesn’t want to become bitter. He works in the commissary filling orders for other inmates and tries to spend as much of his time as possible outside in the yard, where he talks with other inmates.

He’s friendly with other juvenile lifers from Philadelphia. He says most of the friends of his youth back in Philly, more than 30 years ago, are gone: They’ve either fallen out of touch or passed away.

Jones says he fondly remembers frequent visits from his brother, who would update him on the family and advise him on what to do after he got out. His brother and father have both died. Jones was not permitted to attend their funerals.

Looking forward, not backward

In a quiet voice Jones says he tries not to think about the day he was arrested back in the 1970s. He tries only to think of the future. He says when he gets out of prison (not “if”), he wants to get a job — maybe as an electrician; he got his license in prison — and he wants to volunteer to help the elderly run errands.

He says he grows sad when he hears about scam artists and those on the outside who target the elderly. “I don’t like other people taking advantage of the weak,” he says. “It doesn’t make me mad. It just makes me sad.”

He says he’s tried to better himself: He got his GED, he learned a trade, and he has changed his perspective on life as he’s matured.

“I value the things around me,” Jones says. “I got a concept of life. Good things make me happy.”

Among those good things, says Jones, is hearing about other prisoners being freed.

Jones says when he came into prison he wasn’t angry, he was just confused about how he’d managed to get himself into such a situation. Speaking in general about Pennsylvania’s policy of incarceration and juvenile lifers, Jones says “people make mistakes” and he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to “put a child in prison for their whole life.”

He says he came into prison as a child and became a man behind bars. “We’ve changed. We’re men now. We’re not children anymore. We know actions have consequences,” Jones says.

He has maintained his innocence for years. “I’m not going to be here the rest of my life,” he says.

‘I keep my faith’

As a young man, Jones says he liked to sit around listening to records and play basketball and baseball. He remembers there was a lot of gang activity that made it difficult to cross into other neighborhoods without crossing gang territory and risking an altercation. He says he’s happy to hear that now there are more recreation centers and other activities for inner-city kids.

He says he misses his mother, who’s now 82 years old, and his siblings. Asked what he wants the world outside of prison to know, he says he is not the bad guy the media portrays. “When [juvenile lifers] get out, we want to be productive citizens not just stereotypes,” he says.

Thinking back on his life, Jones says if he hadn’t gone to prison, he might have gone to college to become a veterinarian or an architect. He says as a kid he liked attending Catholic school, because it had so much discipline, and the nuns were committed to getting students to learn.

To pass the days and keep his mind focused, Jones says he reads the Bible a lot. As a teen he says he wasn’t particularly religious, but now he goes to services every Sunday.

“I keep my faith,” Jones says. “If it’s [God’s] will, it’s his will. It’s not going to shake my faith just because things don’t go my way.”

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