The longest prison sentences ever served

Richard Honeck in 1963

Richard Honeck in 1963

Richard Honeck (1879-1976), an American murderer, served what was, at the time, the longest prison sentence ending in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.

My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky’s incomparable The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour’s work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of a modern tabloid – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.

Honeck, a telegraph operator and son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 22 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899).

Richard Honeck before and after: mugshots taken at the time of his arrest (1899) and his parole (1964).

Richard Honeck before and after: mugshots taken at the time of his arrest (1899) and his parole (1964).

Koeller, who was later found by the police sitting in a chair stabbed in the back, had testified for the prosecution some years earlier when Honeck and Hundhausen were charged with setting a number of fires in their home town, Hermann, Missouri (New York Times, 5 September 1899). According to a confession made by Hundhausen, the two men had sworn revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in considerable detail. Honeck, Hundhausen said, had stabbed the dead man with the eight inch bowie knife (Ibid and Chicago Tribune, 5 September, 22+25 October, 5 November 1899).

It was left to a latter-day Associated Press reporter, the memorably-named Bob Poos, to shine a spotlight on Honeck’s case in 1963 after seeing a reference to it in the Menard prison newspaper. Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the papers, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from $5 down to 25 cents. Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August and 27 October 1963)

Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife. He served 28 days in solitary confinement for that infraction, but had a clean record after moving to Menard, where he worked for 35 years in the prison bakery. “I guess I’d have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the old lag concluded when interviewed by Poos. “There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1963).

Richard Honeck, murderer, with his niece Clara Orth, December 1963

Honeck with his niece Clara Orth, December 1963

[Updates (July 2010 and August 2010)]: My thanks to a reader who points out that Honeck’s death – aged 97 – was reported by the St Petersburg Times for 30 December 1976. He had gone to live in Oregon with a niece, Mrs Clara Orth, after his release, and spent the last five years of his long life in a nursing home in that fair state.

Further articles concerning the Honeck case have been appearing online since I first wrote; the pair of mugshots above, showing Honeck at the start and the end of his incredible sentence, come from a clipping published in the Park City Daily News, 20 December 1963. In this clipping, Bob Poos follows up his original reports on the case and describes the 84-year-old, just-released murderer as “sprightly” and – in passages that perhaps smell slightly of reporters’ prose – delighting in the marvels of the modern world. “The old man,” Poos wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars. During the car trip from Chester to St Louis [where he caught a plane to San Francisco to meet his niece], Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.’”

Richard Honeck in 1964, pictured during a prison visit shortly before his release.

Richard Honeck in 1964, pictured during a prison visit shortly before his release.

Clara Orth – the daughter of Honeck’s sister, seen above left showing her uncle a scrapbook filled with clippings about him – was profiled, too, in a wire report published in somewhat different versions by the St Petersburg Evening Independent of 27 December 1963 and the Tuscaloosa News of 1 January 1964. She had quit her job to care for Honeck, it was reported, and sold her one-bedroom trailer home and bought another trailer with two bedrooms for them.

Orth had some family memories to recount as well. Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt. In six years in Missouri, Orth recalled, “Uncle Richard’s father and sister never once mentioned him.” Interviewed again at the time of Honeck’s death, Orth said that her uncle had slowly become senile and had to be placed in care. “He wasn’t bitter,” she added. “He decided long ago that if he had to be in prison that he would make the best of it. Since he got out he’s had a glorious time.”

[Afterword (29 August 2010):] Further research suggests that while the sentence served by Richard Honeck probably was unique in its day, his unwelcome record has since been exceeded in at least two known cases in the US alone, and by others in Australia. The US record holder – again probably, for, as we will see, it depends on one’s definition of incarceration – is Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911, served 68 years and 245 days in various New York state hospitals and prisons. He was only 17 when he broke into the apartment of the rumoured-to-be-wealthy William Jackson, 73, and killed his victim by choking him with a chloroform-soaked rag. It was harder than he expected – “The old man put up a fight,” he said – and he got away with nothing but $7 in cash, a watch and a stickpin in exchange for Jackson’s life.

Paul Geidel before: aged 17 in 1911.

Paul Geidel after: aged 86 at the time of his release from Fishkill Correctional Institute in 1980.

Paul Geidel after: aged 86 at the time of his release from Fishkill Correctional Institute in 1980.

Geidel was released on May 7, 1980, at the age of 86. His case differed from Honeck’s in two key respects. Firstly, he was initially sentenced not to life imprisonment but to twenty years to life, but later declared insane, being incarcerated not in a prison but in a hospital for the criminally insane. Secondly, Geidel was offered parole at an earlier date than was Honeck – in 1974, when he had served only 62 years. Geidel had become institutionalized and declined release, voluntarily choosing to remain confined for an additional six years.

I take a special interest in his story because of a strange coincidence: Geidel’s crime took place in an apartment next door to the one owned by Charles Whitman, who was New York’s district attorney at the time. Whitman, it is reported, took a personal interest in the case and “extracted a confession or two.” This comes as no surprise to me, since Whitman was also the prosecutor responsible for the arrest and execution of Charles Becker, a corrupt New York cop found guilty of the murder of a gangster named Herman Rosenthal in two notorious trials of 1912 and 1914 largely as a result of Whitman’s politically-motivated determination to hound him to the electric chair. The Becker case and Whitman’s behaviour in it were the subject of my book Satan’s Circus.

The second case occurred in Chicago: William Heirens, the “Lipstick Killer,” confessed to three murders in the aftermath of World War II, and was convicted, sentenced to three life terms, and sent to prison on 5 September 1946. He exceeded Honeck’s record of time served in August 2010, dying, still incarcerated, on 5 March 2012. Heirens – who was born in 1928 – would have had to live until 9 May 2015 to beat the record set by Geidel.

Richard Honeck was the subject of significant press interest at the time of his parole. Below is a gallery of press photos released at that time. Click on any image to view it in higher resolution.

Richard Honeck and Clara Orth in San Francisco 1964

Richard Honeck feeds a squirrel after releaseRichard Honeck with Menard guard Jake Sharp

Richard Honeck, %22the loneliest person in the country%22, in his San Leandro trailer home

Honeck released


Afterword (8 April 2012):] Also worthy of note is the case of two imprisoned Black Panthers, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who when their case was noted by the BBC, had spent 40 years in solitary confinement for the murder of a prison guard named Brent Miller in 1972. Both men – originally jailed for armed robbery – say that they joined the Panthers in an attempt to improve the appalling conditions in Louisiana State Penitentiary; aside from a brief spell in 2008 spent in a high security dormitory, they have spent 23 hours a day locked up alone for the whole of that time. They protest their innocence.

Herman Wallace's sketch of his solitary confinement cell. The obsessive interest evident in its dimensions may be a product of 40 years spent within its four walls.

Herman Wallace’s sketch of his solitary confinement cell. The obsessive interest evident in its exact dimensions may be a product of 40 years spent within its four walls.

[Updates (5 October 2013 and 9 June 2015)] A federal court ordered that Herman Wallace be released from prison on 1 October 2013 after his 1974 murder conviction was reversed. He was suffering from liver cancer and died three days later.

Wallace told his lawyer George Kendall that solitary confinement – in a cell that, in his case, was six feet by nine feet (three metres by two) – “is the cruellest thing one man can do to another.” He had kept in shape using dumb-bells made of old newspapers which he had constructed himself. The evidence against the two Black Panthers’ involvement in Miller’s death, most sources report, was weak; there were no fingerprints at the scene and Miller’s wife has stated she had doubts about the conviction and hoped the pair would be fairly treated. The case was prosecuted twice and in both cases, convictions were overturned on appeal.

A Louisiana judge ordered the release of Wallace’s friend Albert Woodfox on 9 June 2015, by which point he had served in excess of 40 years in solitary confinement. The judge also banned prosecutors from attempting to try the 68-year-old prisoner for a third time, though the Louisiana attorney general announced that he planned an appeal in any case, “to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions.”

Their motto, Wallace said, was “always far apart, but never not together.” A BBC report on Woodfox’s impending release notes an intriguing bit of symbolism: Woodfox and Wallace, together with a third Black Panther, Robert King (who was not accused of involvement in the Miller murder, and who was released in 2001) were known as ‘The Angola 3’, because “the prison lies next to a former slave plantation called Angola.”

[Afterword (31 December 2012):] As noted below by commenters Edward Stengel and David Frigault, the current consensus seems to be that – if Geidel is excluded – the unwelcome record for the longest prison sentence served that ultimately ended in release is held by Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (probably February 1886-18 May 1987), of Jefferson County, Kentucky. He was convicted of second degree murder in 1908 and eventually paroled from Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City in 1974, having served 66 years, four months and one day (24,228 days, allowing for leap years) of his life sentence. Grigsby had been 56 years into that stretch at the time that Honeck was paroled, and was 89 when he was freed. His sole possessions at that time were a well-thumbed Bible, three old watches, a bottle of foot spray, and a packet of tobacco.

Grigsby entered the pen as prisoner 4045 on 8 August 1908 – have travelled cross-country for several days in a horse and cart to get there – and was freed on 9 December 1974. He had been convicted of knifing one James Brown to death in a saloon in Anderson, IL, on 3 December 1907.

Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby, who between 1908 and 1974 served the longest prison sentence known to have terminated.

Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby, who who between 1908 and 1974 served the longest prison sentence known to have terminated in release.

The fight broke out over a game of five card stud poker. As Grigsby remembered it, “I never should have been sentenced to [serve a term for] natural life because that murder was more suicide than murder… I was in this saloon, just mindin’ my business, and this fellow comes up to me. I always wore a big diamond in them days. And he seen that diamond. Come up and said, ‘Wanna play some cards?’

“I had an ace, king, jack and deuce in my hand when he stood up and came at me. I had this little deerfoot knife that I pulled out and just cut him on the shoulder. He was bleeding, but so drunk he wouldn’t see a doctor… Stayed at the bar like a crazy man or something ‘stead of gettin’ to a hospital. He was a fool, is what he was… Just kept saying, ‘I don’t need no help.’ We even got a doctor to his house, but he went to bed and didn’t want no doctor.”

The victim, who was white, was found lying dead on his blood-soaked mattress the next morning, Grigsby added, and the sheriff who arrested him told him: “You couldn’t have picked a better one there, Van Dyke. He was a mean S.O.B.” In this telling of the story, Grigsby owed his sentence mostly to the machinations of a prosecutor who was running for the senate and wanted to look tough on crime; as he saw it, he had the last laugh, because although the DA who convicted him won the election, he was “dead in a year.”

At other times, however, Grigsby – who was the son of freed slaves – said that things had gone down rather differently. Brown had had a knife, he told the Kokomo Tribune, and he had grabbed it from him during their fight; on another occasion, probably more accurately, he admitted that after the row erupted over the card table, he left the saloon and visited a pawn shop to redeem a knife that he had pledged there – thus establishing the premeditation necessary to justify a life sentence.

Grigsby at 91, back – voluntarily this time – in Indiana State Penitentiary.

Grigsby at 91, back – voluntarily this time – in Indiana State Penitentiary.

Research suggests that elements of all these various accounts combine to form the truth. Genealogist Reginald Pitts, who looked into the story and read the original sources, tells it this way: “According to the transcript of the trial, Mr Brown and Van were playing poker and started fighting. Curses and racial slurs were uttered, and Mr Brown pulled a knife on Van. Van left the bar, went home and got his own knife. Mr. Brown saw Van coming up the street back to the bar. He picked up a chair and threw it at Van, who dodged it, and then lunged at Mr Brown with his knife and stabbed him to death. Supposedly, the lawyer told Van to plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair.”

Grigsby seems to have been a model prisoner in the mould of the post-Joliet Richard Honeck. His main pass-times were reading the Bible (two of his three brothers were country preachers), an encyclopaedia and a dictionary. “That encyclopedia is an amazing book,” he said. “I read the whole thing from A to Z.” His other interest was boxing, and he reminisced frequently about the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries heavyweight title bout of 1910, although that had taken place a couple of years after he was imprisoned.

Like Paul Geidel, Grigsby became institutionalised during his long confinement, and spent a large part of his sentence under psychiatric observation – one source says nearly 50 years of it, another puts the time at 55 years. He found it difficult to adjust to freedom once it had been granted to him and he was sent to live in Woodview nursing home in Michigan City, where he kept mostly to himself and was described by staff as “moody” and friendless. He returned voluntarily to prison in 1976 after 17 months on the outside – a move he told one reporter he regretted – after complaining that life in his home was boring and that he had expected to be found a job “like being a porter in a barber shop… I could have done that, but there was no job. It was like being useless.”

Johnny Cash's handwritten lyrics for the song Michigan City Howdy-Do sold at auction in December 2010, fetching $1,280.

Johnny Cash’s handwritten lyrics for the song Michigan City Howdy-Do sold at auction in December 2010, fetching $1,280. Click to view in higher resolution.

The old-timer was put up in the prison hospital because guards felt that, at 90 years old, he would struggle in the hurly-burly of the chow line, and served a further several months there. His parole officer, John Rascka, said that Grigsby was a loner who preferred incarceration in the maximum security facility because it was all he knew and he was treated well. Most sources agree that he retained considerable vitality well into his 90s, maintaining physical fitness by dancing a “stiff-legged dance” of his own invention.

Grigsby remained “alert and reality-oriented”, the Bryan Times reported; added Jet: “He receives more attention than most inmates. The staff like him. He tells fabulous stories and they get a kick out of it.” Said one: “Van Dyke is just the sweetest old man, but he will use the ‘French language’ now and then.” And late in November of ’76, Grigsby left prison again, by now aged 91 and this time apparently for good. “I’ve been here too long. I’ll not be back,” he said as he was taken to the Marion County Home in Indianapolis. “I feel like I’ve been born again.”

Speaking in 1976, the old-timer said he had made 33 unsuccessful attempts to gain parole before finally being released. He added that he thought his sentence was cruel and sometimes wished the judge had sentenced him to hang, but added: “I’ve put all my trust in God. There’s got to be a meaning for this.”

Jonson Van Dyke Grigsby sex socks

Jet Magazine published this photo of the 92-year-old old lag’s socks, adding: “Grigsby has not forgotten everything. Anyone who looks at his socks might have been a little bit surprised to see that warm three-letter word embroidered there.”

Grigsby’s celebrity was such that Johnny Cash wrote a song about him entitled Michigan City Howdy Do and presented him with a colour television. Van Dyke’s last take on the justice system he was so intimately familiar with was: “Nobody likes it in prison. They make it as good as possible. Prison life is not really that bad. But nobody really wants to be here.” And his view of human nature was that little had changed in the course of his long stretch: “The people are the same. Just gettin’ you in trouble and all kinds of foolishness. Always gettin’ you in trouble. I keep to myself and don’t pay ’em no attention. Read my Bible. Why, that’s exactly what I do.”

The old man’s one other hobby, during his time in prison, was collecting keys – a habit that he kept up in his nursing home, and which Ebony journalist Hamilton J. Bims thought was significant: “The keys may be signs of his lingering conviction that he is still a kind of prisoner.” Ebony, Dec 1975; St Petersburg [FL] Evening Independent, 9 Sep 1976; Jet, 16 Sep 1975 + 6 Jan 1977; Bryan Times, 9 Aug 1976; Beaver County Times [PA], 25 Nov 1976;  Kokomo Tribune, 28 Nov 1979.]

Notes on the longest known sentences served, by state

Betty Smithey spent 49 years inside for the murder of a 15-month-old toddler.

Betty Smithey spent 49 years inside for the murder of a toddler.

I discovered in the course of correcting my master listing of longest sentences served (below) that the state-by-state summary of record stretches that I’d used to compile parts of it has vanished utterly from internet view. Here in its stead is a series of mini-studies on the longest sentences served in various places:

  • Conditions in St Clair Correctional Facility, home to Roosevelt Youngblood in 2002, are a vast improvement on those typical in the Alabama prison system in the 60s...

    Today’s St Clair Correctional Facility, home to Roosevelt Youngblood in 2002, offers comforts that are a vast improvement on those typical in the Alabama prison system in the 60s…

    Alabama. According to a newspaper article published in 2002, Alabama’s longest serving prisoner at that time was Roosevelt Youngblood, 61, who had been sent to prison – for life – for robbery in 1961, who had killed a total of three fellow inmates in the course of the 1960s and 1970s, and who was not due for parole until 2008. As Youngblood told it, responsibility for the murders he committed rested as much with the appalling Alabama prison regime as with him – he had killed simply to survive in a brutal, filthy and overcrowded penitentiary, run by a system so bad that it had to be taken over by the federal courts simply in order to ensure that inmates had access to things such as toothbrushes and flushing toilets. Being in prison in Alabama, he asserted was like “being out in the jungle with a bunch of cobra snakes.” Youngblood was not alone in this assessment: Alabama lawyer Alvin J. Bronstein describes Fountain, the facility he was held in as a place “shocking to to conscience,” where an average of 50 sexual assaults occurred each week, where “people were being raped, beaten, there was stealing and the guards were afraid to go in there and didn’t go in there.” If Youngblood was at Fountain in the 60s, Bronstein adds, “he would almost have [had] to [kill] to stay alive.” The Youngblood of 2002, however, was old for 61 – partially paralysed by a stroke, afflicted by cirrhosis of the liver (which sounds like a further indictment of the Alabama prison system) and suffering constant pain from a bullet lodged in his spine – an injury inflicted when he was shot by a guard for fighting with another inmate “who drew an ice pick on him.” He insisted on calling the other prisoners with whom he shared his time “associates”, not “friends” – which is perhaps not surprising when one considers that St Clair, the correctional facility where he was by then imprisoned, has been described by as one of the most dangerous lock-ups in the US, with five prisoner-on-prisoner killings in only 30 months, and “a toxic mix” of problems, which apparently included “overcrowding, a warden who doesn’t care what prisoners do to one another, and drug-dealing guards who sometimes order hits on inmates.” Youngblood slipped out of sight after featuring in that one report – published in the Tuscaloosa News, 12 May 2002 – and I have not been able to find any report of what happened to him subsequently. He is no longer incarcerated, and does not feature on the US Social Security Death Index. This implies parole, but – give our description of the frail and ailing prisoner of a dozen years ago – I still suspect that he may have died in prison. He had served 41 years at the time the News caught up with him.

  • Arizona. Betty Smithey [above] was the longest-serving female prisoner in the US at the time of her 2012 parole. She had completed 49 years of a sentence for the murder of a 15-month-old girl whom she had been babysitting.
  • Arizona. Louis Taylor served the longest sentence – 42 years – that I have record of for prisoners who had their sentence vacated or overturned. He had been found guilty of setting a fire in a Tuscon hotel that killed 29 people. Evidence suggested that, while he was at the scene, he had actually been helping guests to escape the flames. Although not formally cleared, he had always pleaded his innocence and was eventually released as part of a deal that saw him plead ‘no contest’ to avoid the delay and cost of a retrial.
  • Australia. When Tony Rawlins died aged 82 in April 2010, he was Australia’s longest-serving prisoner. He had been imprisoned in 1956, aged 28, for the “Kissing Point mutilation murder” and was 54 years into his stretch when he died. Like several of the criminals on this list, Rawlins had killed a child, strangling a 12-year-old girl named Fiona Pronger with his belt after she rejected his advances.
  • California. Booker T. Hillary, who remains in prison nearly 53 years after his conviction for murder, is serving time for the killing of a 15 year old girl, Marlene Miller, in 1962 and is California’s longest-serving male prisoner. Details of the case are contested. Hillary (who is black, while Miller was white) was convicted by an all-white jury and made extensive efforts between 1962 and 1985 to seek a retrial. Those who oppose his release point out that he was on parole for an earlier rape conviction at the time of the murder, and that at least one fellow inmate claims to have heard him confess to stabbing Miller.
  • Patricia Krenwinkel, centre, seen at the time of her trial. She is flanked by fellow Manson family members Susan Atkins (died in jail 2009) and Leslie Van Houten.

    Patricia Krenwinkel, centre, seen at the time of her trial. She is flanked by fellow Manson family members Susan Atkins (died in jail 2009) and Leslie Van Houten.

    Meanwhile, Betty Smithey’s release [above] leaves Manson Family members Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten as almost certainly the longest-serving women in the US prison system. The pair were convicted on 25 January 1971 and – after commutation of their death sentences to life terms – had, as of October 2015, both served in excess of 44 years in the California penal system for their parts in the Family’s murders. (Van Houten spent six months out of prison, on bail awaiting a retrial, in 1978. Denied parole, for a 20th time, at her most recent hearing in June 2013, she is next eligible for consideration for release midway through 2018, by which time she will be 68 years old.)

The case of

The case of “Old Fitz” Fitzgerald, paroled from Folsom in 1971, shows that long prison sentences were served out before the modern prison era. Richard Honeck’s near-contemporary put in a total of 59 years in jail for three separate offences, including the murders of a Montana sheriff and a San Gabriel policeman.

  • Also worthy of mention is one old-timer, Charles “Old Fitz” Fitzgerald, a long-serving career criminal who was finally paroled from California’s Folsom Prison in 1971, at the age of 85. Fitzgerald was then the longest-serving inmate in the state, having first gone to the pen in 1908, aged 22. He served three years for burglary, and, after his release, killed a Montana deputy. That crime earned him a 100-year sentence, but he was paroled as a reformed character after only 11 of those years – only to kill again in 1926 while participating in a rum-running operation during Prohibition. “Old Fitz” served 45 years for that final crime, and survived his second parole by five years, dying aged 90 on 30 October 1976.
  • Connecticut. Burglar Francis (Frank) Clifford Smith went to gaol for the murder of a nightwatchman during a break-in in Greenwich. Convicted on 7 July 1950, Smith is now 90 years old, in his 65th year inside, and the senior man, by time served, in the entire US prison system. He escaped briefly in 1967 and spent 11 days on the run before being recaptured.
  • Eire. Jimmy Ennis has spent longer than any other prisoner in an Irish jail – 50 years for killing farmer George Applebe in the course of a robbery gone wrong. Ennis declined to seek parole for many years, and as of March 2013 was reported to be institutionalised and probably incapable of successfully adapting if released.
  • Gary Alvord killed three women over the price of one game of pool.

    Gary Alvord killed three women over the price of one game of pool.

    Florida. It seems that Gary Alvord – awarded the unwelcome soubriquet of “the man too crazy to be executed” by the Tampa Bay Times – holds the record for longest time spent on death row. He served 39 years for the 1973 killing of three women, seeing out eight presidents, nine Florida governors and two different death warrants before falling victim to a brain tumour in May 2013. Alvord, a schizophrenic from Michigan, was a prolific thief, molester and kidnapper on the run from a prison sentence for rape when he strangled Ann Herrmann – and then killed Herrmann’s mother and daughter – for the crime of overcharging a friend for a game of pool.

  • France. Philippe El Shennawy, released from prison aged 59 in January 2014, was France’s longest-serving prisoner at that time. He had completed 38 years of a life sentence for armed robbery and taking hostages. Life sentences in France do not normally exceed 30 years, but El Shennawy had been returned to prison after breaking the conditions of the parole he was granted in 1990, and had subsequently made two successful escape attempts, in 1997 and 2004. While free, he committed several further armed robberies.
  • Idaho. Sentenced to a short stretch in jail for robbery back in 1969, Robert Lee Macik was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate during a prison riot two years later. As of November 2014, he had completed 45 years for the two crimes, and continued to protest his innocence of the prison killing.
  • William Heirens makes a start on his record sentence, 1946.

    William Heirens makes a start on his record sentence, 1946.

    Illinois. William Heirens, of Chicago, was a 17-year-old “organised lust killer” when he went to jail for three murders on 5 September 1946; he died, still behind bars and insisting he was innocent, on 5 March 2012. Heirens earned the soubriquet “The Lipstick Killer” after scrawling the words “For heavens/sake catch me/before I kill more/I cannot control myself” onto the wall of his second victim’s apartment; his original story was that the crimes had been committed by his evil alternate personality, “George Murman.” He was highly intelligent and, having begun college in his home town at the age of 16, was consistently referred to in the press as the “University of Chicago brightboy.” Heirens fought a long battle for freedom, but by early 2011 – the Chicago Reader reported – things were going rapidly downhill for the country’s longest-serving inmate. He “can’t get out of bed or bathe himself,” a reporter wrote, “and his cataract-plagued eyes have left him unable to read. He has severe diabetes and gets shots of insulin twice a day, along with a cocktail of other medications. Nurses constantly change bandages on his legs, where diabetic sores weep fluids. They say he is beginning to show signs of dementia.”

  • With Heirens dead, Illinois’s longest-serving prisoner is currently Chester Weger, the Starved Rock Murderer, who confessed in 1961 to the bludgeoning of Lillian Oetting and two other women the previous year.
  • Japan. A one-time boxer named Iwao Hakamada was reportedly the world’s longest-serving prisoner on death row when he was released, in March 2014, after serving 48 years for the brutal murders of a family of four. He had maintained his innocence, and a reinvestigation concluded that the police had probably beaten the confession that he made from him, as well as fabricating evidence.
  • Kentucky. 76-year-old Willie Gaines Smith was Kentucky’s longest-serving prisoner, having swapped an appointment with the electric chair for a life sentence for the murder of a store clerk during a robbery. Smith entered prison on 31 August 1960; his co-defendent was paroled in 1981, but he himself remained in prison as of 2014 despite being granted medical parole because he needed nursing care; no care home would agree to take him in. He died on 14 December 2014, midway though his fifty-fourth year of imprisonment.
Willie Gaines Smith – jailed for murder on 31 August 1960, and denied access to parole hearings in 2004.

Willie Gaines Smith – jailed for murder on 31 August 1960, and denied access to parole hearings in 2004. “I’ve been here long enough,” he told a reporter in 2014. “I’ve served it out.”

  • Louisiana. It’s hard to get accurate information out of the Louisiana prison system, but its longest-serving inmate looks likely to be Leotha Brown, who is now in his early 70s and went to prison there early in 1964 for robbing and shooting a bartender in a swing club. I’ve found no record of any parole, and Brown was certainly still in the state’s notorious Angola gaol as of 2011, when he featured, playing soprano saxophone, in a documentary on prison music. He appears to have become a model prisoner, running leadership courses, studying for college credits, and assisting at the Angola Bible College. If he is indeed still in jail, Brown is [October 2015] currently approaching the end of his 51st year inside.
  • Lifer Leotha Brown plays sax within the confines of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

    Lifer Leotha Brown plays sax within the confines of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

    Maine. Albert Paul, who was nearly 80 when his case was reported in 2013, is the oldest and the longest-serving prisoner in Maine. He first went to prison aged 18 in the early 1950s, and the state estimates that it has paid $1.5m to keep him incarcerated since that date. His current sentence, for murder, began in 1971, meaning that – as of November 2014 – Paul was 43 years into his latest stretch.

  • Maryland. Charles Edret Ford, now 84 years old and placing ninth in the all-time list of time served after spending more than 63 years of his life inside, launched a highly unusual appeal against his conviction in July 2015 – unusual in that the prosecutor and all the witnesses who featured in his 1952 trial are long dead, there is no trial transcript, and almost all of the records relating to it were destroyed around 2009. Ford, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury of the shotgun murder of one Vincent Lewis (who had, in turn, apparently killed Ford’s brother), and his appeal was granted on the grounds that the defence attorney had failed to file an appeal after the original conviction, and had never even advised him that he had the right to appeal. He claims that he knows the identity of the real murderer, but declines to reveal it, and adds that both he and his girlfriend were coerced into making confessions by an officer who hit him in the face with his night stick. Ford has an alibi – he says he and his girlfriend were with another brother at a dance. There were also discrepancies in witnesses’ descriptions of the killer, one stating that he wore a light coat and dark trousers, another that the colours were the other way around. Commenting on the appeal, Maryland lawyer Tucker Clagett noted: “An appeal from 63 years ago is not something you see very often. In fact, I bet the ruling will itself be the subject of an appeal because it is so old. Appeals take years to work out. I wonder if they will expedite it for a man who is already 84 years old!” Certainly the whole appeal seems to be something of a race against time; Ford is suffering from cancer. One sidelight on the case is that the prisoner also accumulated an additional 10 year sentence for assault in 1975 while “out on some sort of family furlough program.” Another is that the publicity surrounding the appeal led Ford’s great-niece to surface and establish contact with him – shades of the Richard Honeck case.
  • Clarence Marshall in 2011.

    Clarence Marshall in 2011.

    Michigan. Armed robber Clarence Marshall was paroled on 27 January 2015, 64 years and two months into his jail sentence – edging out by about one month the time served by Richard Honeck, and making him the fifth longest-serving prisoner that I know of. For reasons that escape me, his case remains almost entirely obscure; despite searching, I have found no press coverage of either his conviction or of his release. What we do know is that Marshall received a sentence of life for two counts, one of armed robbery in September 1952 and another of an unarmed “assault with intent to rob and steal” in November 1950. He was born on 18 May 1930, making him 84 yeas old at the time of his parole.

  • That leaves Sheldry Topp. After 52 years behind bars, he has only hazy memories of the day he stabbed an attorney named Charles Davies in the chest and neck while burglarising the man’s home back in 1962. Topp was 17 years old, and on the run from the state mental hospital at Pontiac, at the time. While he fled the house before his victim died, he had fatally exacerbated the situation by dismantling Davies’s phone at the start of the break-in, preventing the dying man from calling for help. Topp now claims to be remorseful – though he adds, “I never understood how people go about showing remorse. I could break down and cry and so forth. People say that’s crocodile tears. I could yell and scream, and people would say that’s putting on a show” – and eight of the 10 parole board members who heard his case in 2011 recommended him for release. His request was denied by Michigan’s governor, Jennifer Granholm.
Captured – Richard Gerald Jordan is paraded in handfuffs during the fashion-conscious 1970s.

Captured – Richard Gerald Jordan is paraded in handfuffs at the height of the fashion-conscious 1970s.

  • Mississippi. Richard Gerald Jordan, who in January 1976 murdered a woman he had kidnapped after demanding a $50,000 ransom for her, remains incarcerated at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm facility after 39 years, most recently after a judge halted a further attempt to execute him in order to investigate whether death by lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As of October 2015, he was 69 and the longest-serving inmate on the state’s death row.
  • Nebraska. Few of the killers on this list proved to be more desperate or dangerous than Jerry Lee Hansen, Nebraska’s longest serving inmate, who went to jail on 20 May 1965 for the triple shooting of his wife and her parents in Cedar Bluffs. Both in-laws were killed and his wife was maimed in the attack, which took place within a few hours of Hansen bring served with divorce papers. Allowed out of jail to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1973, Hansen persuaded his guard to let him call on his by then former wife. He then attacked the prison officer and tied him up before using the man’s gun to shoot his wife for a second time. This time Sandra Soderling was paralysed, and her ex-husband picked up a second 20 year sentence for wounding her, to add to the one he had been handed in 1965. As of October 2015, Hansen had been in jail for 50 years.
  • Raymond Shuman, booked for double murder just before Christmas 1957, is still held in a Nevada jail almost six decades later.

    Raymond Shuman is booked for double murder just before Christmas 1957. Shuman is still held in a Nevada jail almost six decades later.

    Nevada. Raymond L. Shuman, 23, was convicted of double murder on 13 June 1958 for his involvement in the robbery and killing of a truck driver and an electrician in the course of a “tri-state crime spree” that took place the previous December while he and an accomplice were both AWOL from the US Navy. Shuman and his fellow sailor Melvin Rowland (who actually pulled the trigger), got a pathetic $3 from the body of their second victim. He remains in prison with [October 2015] more than 57 years served, and has been no model prisoner. In 1973 he doused another inmate with lighter fluid and set him on fire in the course of a fight over whether or not a window near his cell should be open or closed.

  • Writer and killer – the poetry of Jack Rainsberger.

    Writer and killer – the poetry of Jack Rainsberger.

    Nevada’s second longest serving inmate was Jack Rainsberger, jailed in March 1959 for the murder of a Las Vegas woman, Erline Folker. He served 41 years and made 20 applications for parole before being released, aged 65 and by that time in a wheelchair, in September 2000. During his years in prison – the first 13 of them spent on Death Row, awaiting an appointment with the gas chamber – Rainsberger became a published poet. “You have two choices,” he told one newspaper in 1973. “You could look to be executed and live for that. Or you could go about your business as though the execution did not exist… I live as if I was going to continue to live. I adopted the Vandanta School of Hinduism. I studied.” None of this cut much mustard with Folker’s son, who campaigned for many years for his mother’s killer to remain behind bars for life.

  • Walter Bourque's case reported in New Hampshire's Nashua Telegraph, 20 September 1955.

    Walter Bourque’s case reported in New Hampshire’s Nashua Telegraph, 20 September 1955.

    New Hampshire. Axe murderer Walter H. Bourque Jr. was convicted in December 1955 of killing a four year old girl, Patricia Johnson, and sentenced to a term of 18 years to life. Bourque was 17 at the time, and was reported in 2004 to be institutionalised, having apparently never been enrolled on the sex offender programme he had been told in 1999 to complete before he could be considered for release. Bourque flirted with freedom on several occasions – in 1977 he was on some form of day-release from a minimum security unit when he was accused of “inappropriate conduct with minors” and returned to jail, and in 1978 or 1979 he was out again on a short-term pass, but caught stealing a cheque. I have been able to find no firm news of Bourque since his case was in the press in July 2004, at which point he had completed more than 49 years in jail, but the New Hampshire Department of Corrections Inmate Locator lists him as still incarcerated and due for release on or before 11 June 2054 – meaning he is scheduled to enter his sixtieth year in jail in December 2015.

  • New Jersey. Howard Unruh died, aged 88, on 21 October 2009, 60 years and a little shy of two months after committing a major early mass shooting in the streets of Camden, New Jersey. He had planned the event for more than a year, and knew several of the five men, five women and three children whom he killed – being convinced, one obituary says, “that his neighbors were ridiculing him behind his back and plotting against him. He was also depressed about his homosexual liaisons in a Philadelphia movie theater.” Wartime tank gunner Unruh’s main target was actually his insurance salesman, but his spree was ultimately sparked by a distressingly prosaic incident – someone stole his front gate, sending him out into the streets armed with a Luger pistol (a souvenir of his war service) and 33 rounds of ammunition. His victims included a six-year-old boy, who was killed while sitting in a barbershop chair, and a young bride who had been married for only six weeks. Unruh – described as an introvert and “religious nut” – returned to his apartment after the shooting and barricaded himself in. He was captured by police who threw a tear gas canister through a window. Assessed as insane, he was incarcerated in New Jersey’s Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
Howard Unruh, a spree killer who shot 13 people on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, in 1949, insisted:

Howard Unruh, a spree killer who shot 13 people on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, in 1949, insisted: “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.”

  • If one excludes Unruh – who was never tried or sent to jail – New Jersey’s longest-serving inmate seems to have been Thomas Trantino, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of two police officers – one of them unarmed – in what is described as “a dank and seamy roadhouse bar on Route 46’s Sin Strip.” The “Angel Lounge murders” were committed in August 1963, and Trantino was paroled on 11 February 2002 after serving 38 years. His case remains highly controversial. Trantino wrote poetry and painted while in jail, attracting patronage from the likes of radical writer Howard Zinn, but leading NJ Lawman magazine to publish an article demanding an end to the humanization of a “brutal double murderer”.
  • New York. James Moore remains in prison in Rochester for the 1962 rape and murder of a 14 year old girl, Pamela Moss. According to contemporary newspapers, Moore also admitted the rape of a nine-year-old and 40 or 50 other instances of sexual assault. As of November 2014, he was about to begin his fifty-third year inside – putting him two years ahead, in time-served terms, of Winston Moseley, who killed Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building over a period of about half an hour in 1964. Moseley’s crime was noteworthy mostly for the fact that Genovese’s death was witnessed by 38 people, none of whom called the police; their apparent callousness features among the motives offered by Alan Moore’s comic book character Walter Kovacs (“Rorschach”) for donning a mask in the noted graphic novel Watchmen.  Moore is also three ahead of Ricky Robles, jailed early in January 1966 for New York’s equally infamous “Career Girls Murders.”
The murders of Janice Wylie (21) and Emily Hoffert (23) scandalised New York in the summer of 1963. The girls – both from upper class families, and ensconced in apparent security in a

The violent murders of Janice Wylie (21) and Emily Hoffert (23) scandalised New York in the summer of 1963. The girls – both from upper class families, and ensconced in apparent security in a “fashionable” Upper East Side apartment – were bludgeoned and viciously knifed by a “baby faced” heroin addict in the course of a burglary gone badly wrong. Reconstruction by A Crime to Remember on the Investigation Discovery Network.

  • New Zealand. Alfred Vincent was jailed in 1964, aged 30, for indecent assault on five teenage boys, though he was suspected of having abused perhaps 95 more. Having failed the Kia Marama programme for the treatment of sex offenders on four occasions, he remains in prison. Vincent, who as of October 2015 had served 47 years, now has a glass eye, two hearing aids, and heart problems. Three of his four surviving victims support his release.
  • North Carolina. Rapist John Phillips holds the record for this state, being now in his 63rd year of incarceration. But a second NC prisoner, cop killer Frank E. Wetzel [below] served 55 years for shooting two Highway Patrolmen, J.T. Brown and Wister Lee Reece, on 5 November 1957. The victims were shot in separate incidents, in two different counties, after pulling Wetzel over for speeding. Their killer was a career criminal with an IQ of 133. He had escaped from a New York mental hospital and was headed to Mississippi, apparently with the intention of breaking his brother out of death row. In 1982, a quarter of a century into a term of life without the possibility of parole, Wetzel married one Bianca Brown, who later claimed to have spent $100,000 on efforts to have him pardoned and freed on the grounds of mistaken identity. There do seem to have been oddities in the case; one witness said that Reese’s killer was “dark complexioned,” and possibly “Hispanic, Italian, American Indian, or black,” while Wetzel’s lawyer argued that it was “patently impossible” that one man could have have committed both murders in the 15 or 20 minutes that separated the two incidents; “he would have had to have averaged speeds of between 140mph and 190mph” on back country roads to have managed the feat, it was said. Once described by a North Carolina corrections officer as “the most potentially dangerous convict in the entire state prison system,” Wetzel died, aged 90, of Alzheimer’s Disease. His brother William, a “new York mobster” convicted of a prison murder, went to the gas chamber in Mississippi two months after the Reese-Brown killings.
  • Part of

    Part of a “wolf-pack” armed with switch-blades… Media characterisation of Joe Ligon and his friends would impact on his sentencing, sending him to jail for life at age 15. Franklin [PA] Herald, 25 February 1953.

    Ohio. Among the longer terms served by prisoners who were eventually cleared of the crime for which they had been jailed was the 39 years that Ricky Jackson spent in the Ohio pen for a murder he did not commit. Jackson was sent to jail with two friends in 1975 after being found guilty of the killing of money order salesman Harold Franks in Cleveland. The main witness for the prosecution was a 13-year-old boy who was sitting on a school bus a block away from the incident, and who recanted his testimony years later. Jackson, who escaped execution only because of an error in the prison paperwork, was freed in November 2014 and awarded $1.08m in compensation. His two friends served 26 and 27 years respectively.
  • Pennsylvania. 15-year-old Joe Ligon was with five friends, drunk on two bottles of wine and prowling their way through South Philadelphia, when the group decided to carry out a series of robberies that left eight men stabbed, two of them fatally. That was in February 1953, and 62 years later, Ligon freely admits to being involved in the spree, and to stabbing one of the gang’s victims – though in his case the youth survived. There are, though, mitigating circumstances. Although undoubtedly boozy, aggressive, and guilty of a serious crime, Ligon was arrested some time before the evening ended, and was never placed at the scene of the two killings. Moreover he and his friends seem to have been the victim of some dubious media stereotyping – “They called us the ‘Headhunter Gang’ at the trial,” he now says, “but I was never in no gang” – and he was, like so many men featured in this listing, also black, poorly educated and poorly represented by a court-appointed attorney. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller sums things up, his lawyer instructed him to plead guilty to murder, presumably to avoid a death sentence, and the resultant trial – for all five defendants and all eight crimes – lasted under a day. Jailed for life without the possibility of parole at a younger age than any of the other inmates in this listing, still aged, in 2015, just 77, and “trim and fit,” albeit with “but six teeth left in my head,” Ligon seems more likely than anyone else to pass Geidel’s current all-time record of almost 69 years inside. That will happen, if he lives, in August 2021, and he will then be 83 years old.
  • South Dakota. Howard Christensen served in excess of 64 years for the 1937 murder of schoolteacher Ada Carey. Extensive details of his case can be found in the comments section below.
  • Charles E. Wetzel.

    Frank E. Wetzel. “Evoked squeals of admiration from teenage girls because of his good looks,” charged the Raleigh News & Observer after his conviction.

    Texas. Harvey Stewart, 83, who had specialised in robbing brothels, was paroled in very late in 2011 or early in 2012 after serving 60 years of a life sentence for murder. Stewart, a violent and apparently unrepentant career criminal, spent 16 months on parole during this time (1985-86) before being returned to jail for conspiracy to commit bank robbery, and as such doesn’t qualify to rank among the longest-serving prisoners. As of 2014, he was “confined by law to a nursing home” and still attempting to get his 1958 sentence overturned.

  • UK. After the imminent release on parole of the notorious Harry Roberts, who completed 48 years of a life sentence for the shooting of three unarmed policemen, Britain’s longest-serving prisoner will be Sam Glass, who as of September 2014 was being considered for release after serving 47 years for child murder. UK prison costs appear to be many times higher per prisoner per year than Maine’s – it is estimated that Glass’s incarceration has cost the country £10 million to date. The UK’s all-time longest-serving prisoner seems to have been John Straffen, who died in November 2007, still imprisoned, after serving 55 years for three child murders, one of which he denied committing. Straffen was aged 77 when he expired. Robert Mone, the longest-serving prisoner in Scotland, is serving a sentence handed down in 1977 for his part in a breakout at a high security mental institution, Carstairs State Hospital.
  • Vermont. The Green Mountain State locked up Roy Girouard in 1975 – and he’s still in prison there 40 years later, despite extensive legal wrangling over whether or not he qualifies for furlough. The state’s position is that he does not, since his sentence specified no minimum term. Girouard’s crime was to shoot dead another man outside a Burlington bar.
Harvey Stewart – convicted in July 1958 of the shooting of 26-year-old James Laird, he had already completed a lengthy sentence for armed robbery.

Harvey Stewart: convicted in July 1958 of the shooting of 26-year-old James Laird, he had already completed a lengthy stretch for armed robbery. “There’s no need to get carried away about it,” he said of his life sentence. “Have a fit. Go crazy. Hang myself. Stab myself. … There ain’t no need to be doing that.”

  • Washington State. Robert Stroud – best remembered as “the Birdman of Alcatraz,” though his lengthy sentence took him to other outposts of the US prison system – served a total of 54 years for the murder of a Juneau, Alaska, bartender who had beaten a prostitute he pimped, and then a prison guard in 1916. Sentenced and first jailed in Washington because Alaska then had no independent judiciary, Stroud died, aged 73, in November 1963. The senior man in the Washington system today is Tony Wheat, jailed for the murder of three petrol station attendants in three different robberies. He went to prison in October 1965, escaped death by hanging, and is eligible for parole in November 2020. In the meantime, he serves on – now 50 years into his stretch. There are strange parallels between Wheat’s case and that of Nevada’s Richard Shuman; Wheat and his partner in crime, Arthur Aiken, were serving in the US Air Force when they set out on their criminal road-trip through the Pacific North-West.
  • Washington State's gas station killings saw Tony Wheat sentenced to death – then reprieved to begin a life sentence that has thus far stretched for 50 years.

    Washington State’s gas station killings saw Tony Wheat sentenced to death – then reprieved to begin a life sentence that has thus far stretched for 50 years.

    West Virginia. Freeman Collins went to jail on 15 August 1930 for the axe murder of Perchie (or Percy) Jarrell, a man he claimed had killed his father 11 years earlier. Incarcerated in the West Virginia pen at Moundsville, he briefly escaped in 1965, was paroled in September 1972, and claimed a second victim, at the age of 78, when he stabbed his parole officer, Pauline McDowell Stuart, to death in August 1977 – apparently because she had refused to help him get to hospital after a motor accident. “He’s been a model inmate, but makes a lousy citizen,” was the verdict of warden Donald Bordenkircher. “He had a chance of freedom and went out and killed again.” Interviewed in 1986, nine years into his second stretch, Collins professed himself relatively content. His seniority had earned him the right to collect midnight snacks from the prison kitchen, and, he said, “I’ve got plenty of friends here, and we’ve got good doctors, good nurses, good guards and good food.” If freed, he added, he’d “go back into some coal hollow and build me a log cabin. I’d find me a woman who can cook cornbread, and I’d come to town only once a week.” He never got that opportunity. Collins served 42 years for the killing of Jarrell, and was 16 years into his sentence for the murder of Stuart when he died, at Pinecrest Sanitarium, Beckley, WVa, on 5 May 1994, at the age of 96. Together, then, his two killings cost him 58 years of his life.

[Summary (31 December 2012, 17 March 2013, 3 November 2014 & 15 October 2015):] Based on all the above, therefore, plus recent data on current inmates in US prisons released via freedom of information requests [survey of all states bar Virginia and Louisiana [seen December 2012, but no longer available online], plus material in the comments below, the ranking of time served looks like this, with all prisoners known to have served sentences in excess of 60 years included, a § denoting a prisoner who survived to be released, and figures based on the date of final release, whether or not parole was offered at an earlier date, and irrespective of whether the prisoner was held in a prison or a secure hospital; Howard Unruh, for example, never stood trial at all, having been diagnosed – controversially – with dementia praecox. In Unruh’s case, these proceedings reportedly took two months, so I have taken 6 November 1949 as the date of the start of his “sentence”. On that basis, Unruh died 16 days short of reaching 60 years inside, although he had actually been in custody for longer than my arbitrary cut-off.

As of March 2013 I have also added data on prisoners who remain incarcerated, denoted †. Clicking on names in mustard will link to further details of these cases. Readers will need to recalculate the time served by still living prisoners by adding in time elapsed since the most recent update.

The listing is probably incomplete; furthermore, since there are around 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences in the US, and since, as David Frigault points out below, 50,000 of them have been denied the possibility of parole – a sentence introduced in many states in the 1970s – it seems inevitable that these records will eventually be beaten. Indeed, if Francis Clifford Smith of Connecticut, handed a sentence of life without parole for murder on 7 June 1950, survives, Paul Geidel’s unwelcome milestone could be passed as early as 8 February 2019.

[1] CHARLES FOSSARD (Aus). 70 years, 303 days (25,871 days)
[2] Paul Geidel (NY). 68 years, 245 days §
[3] Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (IN). 66 years, 123 days §
[4] William Heirens (IL). 65 years, 181 days
[5] Francis Clifford Smith (CT). 65 years, 120 days †
[7] Richard Honeck (IL). 64 years, 30 days §
[9] CHARLES FORD (MD). 63 years,  249 days †
[10] BILL WALLACE (Aus). 63 years, 148 days
[11] John Phillips (NC). 63 years, 79 days †
[12] JOE LIGON (PA). 62 years, 291 days †

21 thoughts on “The longest prison sentences ever served

  1. In South Dakota ,a young man murdered a girl and spent at least 59 years in prson he escaped the death penalty but got life with no parole Howard Christenson was the subject of a book ,59 Years by Pat Healy. Do you know anything about this I can’t find the book. Read about this in the Watertown Public Opinon newspaper in about 1993 Thank You , Sincerly, Frank McLaughlin ,The Villages,FL

  2. Like you, I have not been able to find a copy of the book you mention. One was certainly being written, as of 1996, by Rep. Pat Haley [Dem, SD], who was himself a former prison guard, but I can find no record of it actually being published.

    I do, however, have some further information on the case. Howard Christenson (or Christensen, according to contemporary sources) was sentenced to life in jail for murder and robbery in 1937. His would have been the very definition of a wasted life, if it wasn’t for the fact that his one significant action ended that of someone with far more to offer.

    Christensen and an accomplice had admitted robbing and shooting a 26-year-old schoolteacher named Ada Carey in Onida, South Dakota, to steal $10 and her car. Christensen was 16 at the time; his accomplice, Norman Westberg, was 17. The two had hitched a lift with Carey and beat and shot their victim when she resisted their attempts to rob her. They were identified by Carey shortly before she died.

    The killers, who came from Chicago, were captured by a sheriff’s posse as they hid in weeds near Onida and had to be taken to jail in Pierre because the sheriff feared they would be lynched. [Joplin Globe, 22 May 1937] South Dakota did not have the death penalty in 1937, and at trial, the jury considered the pair’s claims that the gun had been discharged accidentally – but the boys were still sentenced to life in prison.

    Further details of the case can be found in E.L. Thompson’s book 75 Years of Sully County History, 1883-1958, which notes:

    “The murder of Miss Ada Carey, of Blunt, on May 21, 1937, which
    was one of the worst crimes ever committed in South Dakota, brought a
    sudden end to a planned crime career of two Chicago youths, Howard
    Christensen, 16, and Norman Westberg, 17, whom Miss Carey had picked up
    as hitchhikers, but who later beat her up and shot her in an attempted
    hold-up on the highway several miles north of Onida. Miss Carey, who
    had been teaching school in the town of Frankfort for two years, had
    stopped in Gettysburg to visit a friend en route to her home in Blunt.

    “The crime terminated with the wrecking of the car near the Myers
    farm about four miles north of Onida. According to officials, it was
    thought the shooting occurred in the vicinity of the hill south of
    Agar, coming down to Okobojo Creek. It was about here that Miss Carey
    was hit over the head with a hammer by Westberg, then shot by
    Christensen and fell out of the car as it came to a stop in the ditch.
    Putting her in the rear seat the boys then speeded on until they
    noticed a car following them, attempted to stop for a side-road and
    tipped over into the ditch. The boys abandoned the car and fled
    westward, while Frank Hiatt of Huron, who had been following them
    stopped at the scene of the accident briefly and then went on for help.
    He stopped at the William Ruckle farm where he requested Mrs. Ruckle to
    return and watch over Miss Carey, and then continued to Onida where he
    notified officials. Dr. V. W. Embree accompanied Sheriff Jack Reedy to
    the scene and brought Miss Carey to the hospital in Onida for immediate
    treatment. Although in a very weak condition, she was able to furnish a
    description of the boys and sign the statement taken by Attorney F. M.
    Ryan. She identified Westberg as the boy who shot her and Christensen
    as the one who hit her over the head with a hammer [sic – which
    of course leaves it quite moot as to which boy did what]. Miss Carey died at
    2:50 that afternoon.

    “Men from Onida, Agar, Gettysburg and surrounding territory
    searched the countryside and finally located the boys northwest of
    Onida on the Cottrill place hiding in a ditch among some weeds. They
    were brought to the courthouse for a brief questioning, then to the
    hospital where Miss Carey identified them, then back to the courthouse
    for further questioning. Sheriff Reedy then took them to Pierre when
    word of Miss Carey’s death was announced and threats were heard among
    the large crowd against the lives of the prisoners.

    “The two boys pleaded “not guilty” to the crime. The jury’s
    verdict stated the boys “while engaged in the commission of a felony,
    killed and murdered Miss Carey”. A life sentence is mandatory for
    murder in this state.

    At the time of the conviction a petition was signed by about
    3,000 people in this area and filed with the Board of Pardons that
    these boys could never be pardoned.”

    The case aroused such passions that it led directly to the reinstatement of capital punishment in the state, according to articles published in the 1990s.

    Westberg hanged himself in 1943, but Christensen was still in prison in 1996, when his case was referenced by Paula Mergenhagen and Rachel Dickinson, in “The prison population bomb”, American Demographics Feb 1996. Mergenhagen and Dickinson noted: “South Dakota State Penitentiary officials wanted to put Christensen in a conventional nursing home, but they were afraid he wouldn’t be welcomed.” Further details can be gleaned from the Burlington Hawk Eye of 21 August 1996, which described Christensen as “slightly demented” and said he had spent 58 years in jail and psychiatric hospitals. Unlike the inoffensive Richard Honeck, Christensen had “a long history of being obnoxious to his visitors and fellow inmates,” according to a prison spokesman at South Dakota State Penitentiary, where the murderer had received nine courses of electric shock treatment, and where was kept on the psychiatric ward. Officials were doubtful any nursing home would agree to take a tricky, notorious and unrepentent killer, who “harrassed visitors, refused to change his clothes, and was so unpleasant officials feared other inmates would attack him.” Consideration was given to subjecting Christensen to a frontal lobotomy to “render him more docile,” but that procedure was never carried out.

    Christensen became eligible for parole in 1975 and spent some time in two half-way houses, but was returned to prison after “acting peculiar” and displaying bad table manners, according to state records. “He’s very easy to talk with,” Healey said. “He’s like a child in a lot of ways… his development was arrested about the time he went to prison.”

    Howard Christensen was paroled by Governor Bill Janklow in June 2001 on the grounds of health and was dead by June 2003. [Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 29 June 2003.] That would suggest he served a sentence of 63 or 64 years. In fact we can narrow it down further, because the date of sentencing is given by the Portsmouth Times [Ohio], 5 June 1937, as that date. Hence it seems that the longest Christensen could have served was 64 years and some days, and he must have fallen just short of Honeck’s 64 years, one month record.

    • I just came across this site, and noticed the comments about Ada Carey.

      A community member here in Onida is working on a history presentation of Ada Carey for Thursday, June 2nd in Blunt. The Onida Watchman (local newspaper) is following the story and will publish details about the event in this week’s paper.

      You can follow that story at, for anyone who is interested. There will be a story about the event this week (to be published June 1st) and a follow-up feature about the presentation and full story of Ada Carey in the Watchman on June 8th on the website.

      Please leave a comment if you stop by the site :) Thanks!

      • The second and final part of the Watchman‘s feature on the Ada Carey murder appeared in the paper on 15 June 2011. Here it is:

        Ada Carey remembered – Part II

        Amanda Fanger

        Ada Carey
        Howard Christensen and Norman Westberg
        were young boys when they first met in a Sunday school classroom on the north side of Chicago. By many standards, the 16 and 17 year-olds were still young when they came to South Dakota, five years later in 1937, with the purpose and intent of leading a life of crime.

        The boys had lived about a block away from each other and had both had run-ins with the law for creating mischief. Christensen had served six days on a juvenile court charge of “malicious mischief;” he had begun to repaint a house black after the owner had just painted it white. Both boys had also experienced charges for shoplifting.

        Both youths were drop-outs, and, discontent with their jobs, they decided to set out on a crime spree. They developed a plan; travel to Seattle, Washington, and begin a pick pocketing school. They had gleaned the inspiration for such a school from a fiction magazine story about just such a school; enrollees were to be given two weeks to learn the art and if they failed for any reason, they would be “docked off.”

        Christensen had been working for a printing concern in Chicago, complaining about not getting “good enough” pay, and Westberg had come back from the Civilian Conservation Corp after having served there for two years.

        Westberg had sent a portion of his wages to his grandmother, Caroline Peterson, in Waupaca, Wisconsin while he had worked in the CCC.

        The boys left Chicago May 15th and went first to Wisconsin to secure the money that Westberg had sent to his grandmother and was deposited in a bank there. The duo arrived on Saturday night and stayed until Monday morning when Westberg went to the bank to withdraw nearly $130 of the $400 he had sent to his grandmother.

        The youth also stole a .32 pistol from the man whose house Westberg’s grandmother was housekeeper. Apparently in bad repair, the boys had the gun fixed at a local gunsmith’s before continuing on their journey.

        They next bused to St. Paul, MN and bought new suits of clothes and spent time in pool halls. It was during this time that they discussed the possibility of holding up some lone traveler in an automobile. They finally purchased a ball peen hammer that Christensen carried with him while Westberg carried the revolver.

        Christensen was to use the hammer to knock out their prospective victim.

        The boys arrived in Watertown, SD on Wednesday night. At the hotel, they gave the names of N.F. Westberg and “Howard Winnan.” The second name was one they had taken from a Robert Ripley ‘Believe-It-Or-Not’ cartoon which they said meant, “courage, bravery and victory.” They registered as being from Fargo and paid for their lodging with a $20 bill.

        According to the night clerk on duty, the boys had looked well dressed and older than their real ages.

        During their stay in the Watertown hotel, the youth further detailed their plan for holding up a lone traveler. They agreed upon a signal which Westberg was to give his colleague, who would be seated in the rear, by folding down his second and third fingers while keeping the first and fourth fingers extended.

        They were set to put their plan into motion on Thursday morning when they hailed a ride from an elderly man driving a Ford sedan. However, as Christensen was climbing in the backseat of the car, the handle of the hammer protruded from inside his shirt where the potential weapon was concealed. The man became suspicious and watched them closely, so no hand signal was given and the man dropped the boys off at Redfield at about noon. They caught another ride in a truck driven by a wool buyer to Gettysburg. The boys later explained that they did not move on this driver because they did not want a truck for their travels.

        On Friday morning, after having stayed in Gettysburg, they decided again to try an altered plan; if possible, they would select a woman victim.

        They caught a lift on a truck from Gettysburg out to the intersection of highways 212 and 83, about five miles west of Gettysburg. Highway 83 was then on the east side of Onida. The boys passed up several cars that they deemed ‘unsuited’ to their purpose, until they saw a shiny new car being driven by 28-year-old Frankfort school teacher, Ada Carey, who was traveling to her parent’s home in Blunt.

        “This looks like our chance,” one of the boys remarked to the other, and they began hailing her. This was around 9:00 in the morning.

        When Miss Carey pulled over, Christensen climbed in the back seat, as pre-arranged, and Westberg climbed in the front. After traveling for 15 or 20 minutes, Westberg gave the signal and checked that his partner was aware.

        Suddenly, Westberg reached down and pulled the keys from the ignition, while pulling the gun out of his pocket at the same time.

        “Why you…” Miss Carey said and as she reached for the gun, the car began to lose speed. Westberg fired the pistol, and it seared Miss Carey’s hand. At the same time, Christensen leaned forward from the back seat and hit the girl over the head with the hammer which he had concealed within his shirt. Miss Carey then reached for the door handle and attempted to escape the car, but Westberg shot again, hitting her in the back, below the right shoulder.

        By this time, the car had turned into the ditch, and Miss Carey fell from the vehicle. The boys picked her up and loaded her into the back of the car, although she pleaded with them to be left where she was. The placed her on the floor in the rear of the car and covered her with their own luggage. Westberg got behind the wheel to drive while Christensen sat beside him in the front seat.

        As they were driving, Miss Carey partly rose off the floor, and Christensen hit her over the head with the hammer once more. Westberg didn’t pay enough attention to his driving at this time and went into the ditch again.

        Getting out and going again, the boys then noticed another automobile following them and became nervous. At this point, Westberg again lost control of the car and it entered the ditch again and the car flipped over on its top.

        The boys, uninjured except for scratches and Westberg’s sprained wrist, took off running across the open country after the car came to a stop.

        Frank Hiatt of Huron had been following the Chicago youths in Miss Carey’s car for several miles and witnessed the wreck. Hiatt stopped at the crash site and found Miss Carey there, who told him she had been shot. Not wanting to move the girl, Hiatt went to a nearby farm and retrieved a farm wife to stay with the girl while he traveled on to Onida for help.

        Newspaper’s account said that a Dr. V.W. Embree accompanied Sheriff Jack Reedy to the scene and brought Miss Carey to town. Sully County State’s Attorney Francis M. Ryan took a statement from Miss Carey at the hospital, which included a description of the boys.

        Meanwhile, a posse was organized to search for the youths who had shot Miss Carey. It is said that “large crowds gathered in town by noon” from Blunt, Agar, Gettysburg, and Onida.

        The youths were found hiding in a patch of Russian thistle a few miles north of Onida about three hours later. Accounts tell that the men who found them weren’t sure at first that the youth were hiding among the weeds, so they called out. The two boys jumped up and began running. Christiansen stopped upon the order of the men, but Westberg continued running until a couple of shots were fired over his head.

        Newspapers from that time period described Christensen as “tearful and apparently very sorry for his act, according to officials, but since that time has given very inconsistent answers to the questions asked him by officials.” It was later said of Christianson that his mind never developed past that point.

        The boys were brought before Miss Carey just prior to her death, and she was able to identify them.

        Headlines of newspapers across the state following Carey’s death called it a brutal slaying and the worst in the history of the state.

        “The fact that the boys had started out planning on just such a career makes it obvious that no punishment can be too severe for them, and that they have no rightful place mingling with society,” stated one newspaper editorial after the boys were caught.

        At that time, South Dakota did not have a capital punishment, although a life sentence was mandatory for murder. Two weeks after Miss Carey’s death, the boys were arraigned and sent to the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls to serve their life sentences.

        Several years later, Westberg hung himself while Christensen died of old age a few years ago.

        Miss Ada Carey had been a member of the Blunt Eastern Star and in 2001, the annual Easter Egg Hunt was renamed in her honor. Paula Barber had made the connection to the crime committed north of Onida and the Eastern Star.

        “I thought it was so interesting,” Barber said. “We (renamed it) because she possessed so many qualities that the Eastern Star advocates.”

        Two weeks ago, Barber held a public historical program in Blunt to highlight the events of Carey’s murder.

        “It’s good that we’re getting reacquainted with our roots,” she said. “I feel kind of good that we uncovered this again.”

      • The first in a two-part feature in the Watchman, 8 June 2011, with the second part due on 15 June.
        Clicking the link to Carey’s name takes you to a scan of the local Blunt Advocate for the week after the teacher’s death.

        Ada Carey remembered

        Amanda Fanger

        On the morning of May 21, 1937, Ada Carey climbed into her car at Gettysburg and started for her home in Blunt. She had stayed the night with a friend, having just finished teaching for the year at Frankfort.

        Little did the 28-year-old know that she would never make it all the way home.

        Last Thursday evening, over 20 people gathered at the Senior Citizen Center in Blunt to reminisce about Ada Carey.

        Paula Barber, advocate of the annual Ada Carey Memorial Easter Egg Hunt, addressed the audience, which consisted mainly of Eastern Star and Mason members and guests.

        Miss Ada Carey, 28, was returning to her home town of Blunt that Friday morning, May 21st. She had been a school teacher in Frankfort for the past two years, and summer vacation had just begun.

        Miss Carey had grown up in Blunt, the oldest daughter of Guy and Fanny Carey. After graduating from Blunt High School in 1927, she attended Huron College for two years.

        Miss Carey had been described as, “one of the outstanding rural school teachers in the Blunt community.” She had taught rural schools in Sully County, also. She was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star #86 in Blunt and taught Sunday School, sang in the church choir, and coached girl’s class in physical education.

        On Thursday night, Carey had stayed in Gettysburg after visiting friends there. At about 9:00 a.m. on Friday, she was traveling south on Highway 83 (then, the gravel road on the east side of Onida) when she noticed two hitchhikers walking on the side of the road. They looked to be about 18 years old, dressed in suits and cleanly shaven.

        As she pulled over to give them a ride, Miss Carey had no idea that newspapers across the state would later describe her ‘brutal slaying’ at the hands of these very two boys.

        “She was really a neat person that I wish I would have known,” Barber commented. “It’s good to bring (this) up again – she will not be forgotten.”

      • For those who did not see the Onida Watchman at the time, here is the story the paper ran in its 1 June 2011 edition. I will post the paper’s fuller retelling of the case, too, after 8 June:

        Ada Carey murder retold in Blunt
        By Amanda Fanger
        Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 4:49 PM CDT

        Paula Barber will be presenting a historical program about Ada Carey Thursday, June 2, to explain why the Eastern Star continues to hold memorial events in her name, 74 years after her untimely death.

        “We want to get the story straight,” Barber said, adding that she wants to inform the general public about the history behind the name. “I want to answer the questions: why are we honoring her and what’s her story?”

        Ada Carey was a school teacher from Blunt who was murdered in Sully County, just northeast of Onida, on May 21st in 1937. She was 26 years old.

        As a teenager, Barber spent time studying and researching the Ada Carey murder case and feels that it is time to tell others about her findings; she wants to educate the newer members of the Blunt and Onida communities about the significance of the person Carey had been.

        Barber is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star #86 in Blunt and adds that Carey had also been a member.

        “I’d just been doing some research (on Carey) and suddenly thought, ‘oh my gosh! She was everything we advocate!’” Barber said. “I just felt that this was my personal project to do.”

        However, Barber said that she just recently decided to host a public program. She said it all started when Joyce Bauer of Pierre inquired about the Ada Carey Memorial Easter Egg Hunt, which is held annually in Blunt.

        Barber says, “I thought, ‘I’ll bet there’s more to this.’”

        As it turned out, there was; Bauer’s mother was a past student of Carey.

        Already, Barber says she has done “a lot of research,” but plans to dig up a bit more history from old newspapers before Thursday.

        While this program is to inform new Blunt and Onida community members, she said, “There are people… who know exactly why we do this.”

        To learn more about the 1937 murder case of Ada Carey, attend the program at the Blunt Senior Center on June 2nd at 8:00 p.m.

  3. Mike,

    I just found your blog and am SO glad I did. I read Batavias Graveyard when it first came out and loved every page of it. We seem to have the same kind of fascination with history and how mankind was able to endure and experience things that today we can only imagine. I have a fascination with geography, exploration etc. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is still one of my favorites.

    Thanks again,

    Chuck Halverson
    Saint Paul, Minnesota

  4. I’m glad this article is still accepting comments. Concerning the longest incarcerated prisoner in United States history, it should be considered Johnson VanDyke Grigsby, who spent over 66 years in the Indiana state penitentiary, from where he was paroled in his late ’80’s around 1975. He met John Dillinger there. William Heirens, who spent a little over 65 years in prison, having died this year, 2012, was second. Richard Honeck should be considered the 3rd longest serving inmate, having served 64 years. In the case of Paul Geidel, even though he spent 68 years in confinement, it was partly in mental hospitals, so it wasn’t all imprisonment. As long as we’re talking about mental hospitals, we should give honorable mention to Howard Unruh, who spent 60 years in New Jersey mental hospitals, after having committed what was considered to be the first mass shooting murder in modern post World War 11 America, when on September 15, 1949, he shot 16 people in Camden, New Jersey, 13 of whom died. He recently passed away at age 88 in the New Jersey state mental hospital. 2 got out – Grigsby and Honeck, and 2 died in confinement – Heirens and Unruh.

  5. Honeck was 20, he was born on January 5 1879 and was arrested in September 1899. One question, was he tried by the state of Missouri or Illinois? Because it says his hometown was in Missouri but he was in an Illinois prison.

    I don’t know the old laws of Missouri since their information is scant, but I do know the reason the state of Illinois called life, “Life Imprisonment” was for a different reason than it is today. Unlike today where life in Illinois is without parole, until 1978 life in Illinois meant parole after 11 years.

    I know of other people who beat Honeck’s record since. One was a 21 year old named Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby who after a poker bar fight, went to a pawnshop and bought a knife and got into another fight with the same person resulting in the other being stabbed to death. He did this in 1907 and was convicted of 2nd degree murder in 1908 and sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Indiana state penitentiary where he stayed until being paroled in 1974 at the age of 89 and spent the rest of his life in a nursing home, dying in 1987 at age 102.

    It is remarkable how a few people managed to spend 60 years or more in prison when comparing that an average life sentence for a capital offence at the time was 7 years and as far as I am aware none of the ones I mentioned were convicted of capital murder.

    Today Louisiana is the harshest jurisdiction on average with the sole possibility of the Federal government. Before 1973 however life in Louisiana meant much less than natural life. Before the 1870’s the penalty for murder was either death or a certain number of years, generally 15-30 years though sometimes less or sometimes more. However unlike in most states of today, most offenders could receive parole in their sentence. In Louisiana parole came after one third of their sentence was completed. This means a prisoner sentenced to 15 years could still be released within 5 years on good behaviour.

    In the late 1870’s Louisiana began introducing life sentences where a lifer became parole eligible after a minimum 5 years. However in the early 1890’s a law was enacted to the governor stating except under exceptional circumstances that a lifer could not be imprisoned for more than 15 years. In 1913 Louisiana abolished parole for lifers however life was never mandatory at the time. However unlike the modern lifers who tend to only get out under mitigating factors or terminal illness, and usually after decades in prison, the lifer in Louisiana in those days was paroled after serving an average of 10 years and 6 months by the governor, (and most lifers in Louisiana at this time were in for capital murder, some even being taken off death row prior to getting life.)

    Then in 1973 the laws changed almost overnight. Suddenly a mandatory life without parole sentence was imposed on all convicted of 1st degree murder after introduction of this sentence, and then ordered all 2nd degree murderers serve a minimum 20 years of a life sentence, then in 1975 the law said 2nd degree murderers must now serve 40 years and on July 14 1979 the state of Louisiana said all life sentences from now on would be without parole. This means the only parole eligible lifers in Louisiana now are a handful of 2nd degree murderers who committed their crimes between 1973 and 1979, the only time since 1913 where life sentences came with the possibility of parole.

    Another state that is notorious for their harsh penalties when it comes to murder is Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania life imprisonment without parole is mandatory both for 1st and 2nd degree murder just as Louisiana (a third state mandating life without parole for both degrees is South Dakota however at this moment I am not certain when they enacted these laws.)

    Pennsylvania had abolished parole for life sentences in 1941 however it did not remain a mandatory sentence. The handful given life did not serve a real life sentences in the vast majority of cases. An average life sentence in Pennsylvania up until the 1970’s was 12 years before receiving a pardon from the governor.

    Though the Federal Government has always had Life Without Parole as a sentencing option, in reality it was rarely imposed, then in 1913 they said all life sentences now came with parole after 15 years, the only exceptions would be if a person on death row had his sentence commuted to life and a judge refused to give parole. Until 1979 the Federal Law Books dictated that life officially meant 15 years, then it was increased to 25 years and then to natural life on December 1 1987.

    Until the Reagan years Presidents were known to pardon hundreds, sometimes thousands of Federal prisoners in a single term, though the amount of pardons declined starting in the 1950’s, the average life sentence did not increase by much since there were many pardons done by the Courts.

    It is also much harder to get a pardon out of prison than it was in the old days. Before the tough on crime laws started to escalate in the mid 70’s, most prisoners including those serving sentences for capital offences could receive day parole. Meaning they could go to work outside of prison or go to school, some even owned their own cars which they could use to drive from and back to prison.

    In most states until recent decades parole for a life sentence came after 7 years. However in practice releasing people after 7 years began to decline starting in the late 70’s to early 80’s and by the mid 90’s had become a thing of the past, especially for more serious offences.

    The statistics of 1990 say a life sentence had by this time increased to a national average of 21 years and risen to 29 by 2003. However unlike the days before the lock em up policies, there were much fewer lifers, most being in for murder or other serious offences of that nature. Now over a third of lifers are in for non-violent offences such as burglary, drug offences, shop lifting, drug trafficking etc., The lifer population has also increased dramatically. For example in Louisiana in 1970 only 143 prisoners were serving life sentences, and at the time a lifer could usually expect an eventual pardon from the governor. By the late 1990’s the lifer population in Louisiana had risen to over 5,000, now it’s nearing almost 9,000. This also doesn’t count the fact that Louisiana also has a big amount of virtual lifers. In the Louisiana State Penitentiary from what I last heard of 5,100 prisoners in the prison, 2,000 were serving sentences other than life such as 90, 120 or 150 years. Few can complete their sentence in their lifetime, many will not make it to the parole board hearing, and most that do will never get paroled.

    The state of Florida abolished parole for 2nd degree murderers in 1983 and mandated they serve all 20 years or a minimum of 25-30 years for any crime resulting in the discharge of firearms. That same year they mandated all lifers for 1st degree murder would now have to serve a minimum 25 years before becoming parole eligible. In 1996 the state of Florida abolished parole completely for those sentenced on 1st degree murder charges after the date of the new laws.

    In the state of Arizona the average life sentence use to mean about 13 years, then in 1978 the law was changed to say lifers sentenced for 1st degree murder must now serve a minimum 25 years. The average life sentence was the same in Wisconsin where parole came after roughly 11 years in most cases, however there were cases of some getting out after the mandatory minimum of 5 years. Back in the early 90’s there were only 2 lifers in Wisconsin who had served over 20 years in prison, one of which was there voluntarily, then by 2006 it had increased to 255 now it’s nearing 450. Of all the lifers in Wisconsin sentenced after 1989, only 2 females have been paroled.

    The reason for longer sentences had little to do with crime rates. In fact crime rates had been falling since 1967, several years before the draconian laws came into place, and ironically briefly escalated in the late 80’s before declining again in the early 90’s.

    In the state of Michigan most lifers got pardoned by the governor. Then in 1942 they officially declared in Michigan that a lifer become parole eligible after 10 years. It was not until 1978 that Michigan changed the laws. Suddenly Life Without Parole became the mandatory sentence for 1st degree murder and 650 grams of coccaine under the “650 Law.” Those convicted of 2nd degree murder would receive parole after 15 years. In 1998 Michigan allowed parole for those convicted of the 650 grams law however of the hundreds sentenced under this law, only six have been released at the time of writing.

    Other states like North Carolina abolished parole in 1993. In 1995 only 16 states had Life Without Parole in its law books, by 2009 all but Alaska had it (however it should be clarified that Alaska does impose sentences of 99 years), the latest three states to introduce it were Texas, Kansas and New Mexico respectively. Texas introduced the sentence in 2004, however on September 14 2005 Life Without Parole became mandatory in this state for capital offences, before this law, the maximum penalty in Texas other than the death penalty was 40 years to life, same as Kansas which had it for murder with aggravating circumstances, other lifers convicted of murder in Kansas received sentences of 15 years to life before introducing the sentence in 2008 however just like a handful of other states like North Dakota, New Mexico and New York rarely impose the sentence.New Mexico introduced the sentence on August 1 2009. Those given life without parole are the ones who would have received a possible death sentence prior. New Mexico like Connecticut did not abolish the sentence retroactively, therefore those on death row or who committed their crimes before August 1 2009 can still receive death, however at the time if given life a lifer in New Mexico became parole eligible after 30 years, now they must serve a mandatory Life Without Parole for the same crime.

    The amount of people serving virtual life sentences is also much higher than what it used to be. Some sources say it is nearly one hundred times higher than it was in the 80’s, most of these people serving consecutive sentences for non-violent crimes, some such as Sholam Weiss are serving 845 years for stealing money. Others like Jeffery Kolli and Russell Brandt are serving 7 life sentences plus 265 years for robbing seven houses and restaurants. This is the longest life sentence in Georgia’s history by over 50 years, what is interesting to note is they were sentenced in August 2006. Until January 1 1995 all life sentences in Georgia came with Parole after 7 years.

    Back in the 1970’s less than 25,000 people across the USA were serving actual life sentences and the prison population was several times smaller per Capita than it is today, those serving Life Without parole were almost non-existent. By 1995 with more states introducing longer life sentences, the lifer population rose to 50,000 with 10,000 serving life without parole. By 2003 it had risen to over 140,000 with nearly 40,000. Now the lifer population stands at nearly 180,000 with approximately 50,000 serving life without parole sentences. It is interesting to note that as the lifer population increased, so did the percentage of those serving life without parole.

    Though the average time of a released lifer is after 30 years, it should be noted most lifers today do not get paroled, in fact in 6 states, Louisiana, Maine, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Illinois as well as the Federal Government all life sentences are without parole. In 22 states an average of 10 lifers out of thousands of applicants get released from each state every year, most for non-violent crimes after serving decades in prison. In the state of California out of 5,000 lifers who applied for parole in 1995, the parole board only accepted 48 however the Governor revoked all but 1 approval.

    As noted the lifer population has gone up. In 26 states Life Without Parole is mandatory for 1st degree murder and mandatory for 2nd degree murder in South Dakota, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The interesting thing to note is on average states with a death penalty have a lower mandatory minimum sentence than states without. South Dakota and Pennsylvania have only executed people voluntarily yet have the most strict 2nd degree murder laws other than Louisiana, while states like Texas, notorious for their executions usually allow murderers to become parole eligible after 20 years. In the state of Virginia which holds the 2nd highest execution rate at 109, most convicted of 1st degree murder in this state are eligible for parole after 15 years.

    I could go on further but I think I made my point that life sentences are significantly longer than they were decades earlier and is much harder to be pardoned when out of prison, and unlike most states which force prisoners to have careers making license plates or pick garbage on a desserted highway where a car goes by once a week, in the old days prisoners could have normal professional jobs, sometimes working outside prison as lawyers, engineers, chefs, a few even became doctors while in prison.

    By the way to anyone who knows, does anyone know what happened to Richard’s accomplice? How many years did he serve, and did he get released and does anyone know what happened to him?

    • Thank you for that remarkably comprehensive comment – probably the longest on the site. You certainly deserve an answer to your questions. Herman Hundhausen successfully convinced the jury that Honeck had wielded the knife that killed Walter Koeller and that he was merely an accomplice. He was sentenced to 20 years, to be served in the same prison, Joliet, that Honeck was originally incarcerated in.

      Although Honeck and Hundhausen came from Missouri and committed their early crimes there, the Koeller murder was committed in Chicago and the pair were arrested and tried in that city, which explains how Honeck came to serve his sentence in Illinois (and perhaps helps to explain the remarkable paucity of Honeck’s visitors).

      • I came across an interesting article for you and anyone interested in the Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby case. The article is short but tells the story of how he went to prison and though he was technically paroled in 1974, after 17 months in a nursing home he went back to jail on his own because he said there were no jobs for him. This means he spent about 11 more years in jail to his already 67 years in prison (66 of which were in the Indiana State Penitentiary) giving him a total of about 78 years and some months. Had he never been paroled he would have served over 80 years in prison all together.,1869151

  6. Can you imagine going to prison and getting out in 2081? The world will be completely different, even more so than this guy’s world, due to the rate of technology advancing.

  7. Reading further on, it seems two black panthers served 40 years (!) of SOLITARY CONFINEMENT.

    Can’t imagine what that would do to a person’s mental state. I’d be more worried about letting them out. 40 years, wtf

  8. Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?

    A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my
    blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your
    theme. Bless you

    • Thank you, Rich. I appreciate this and all the other positive comments you’ve left here and at Past Imperfect. I’m glad to hear that you enjoy the sort of things that fascinate me.

  9. Pingback: Top 10 world records no one would really like to achieve - Listmellow

  10. Pingback: America’s first highjacking | A Blast From The Past

  11. Pingback: The Longest Prison Sentences Ever Served -

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