It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to go into a confined, controlled environment for close to 70 years and then re-enter the world. Sadly, that is what John Phillips has had to consider. Phillips has been behind bars in North Carolina since April 8, 1952. He has not seen the outside world since. Since that time, multiple wars have happened, man traveled into space, the United States landed men on the moon, and the internet was invented. All of that took place with Phillips behind bars. Now, he calls prison his home. Now 85 years old, he has very little desire to re-enter society. Why is this the case?
When Phillips was originally convicted, rape was a capital crime in the Jim Crow South. Clearly, the color of his skin did not do him any favors. While Phillips was first eligible for parole in 1959, his parole has been denied each time it has come up. Now, Phillips has become accustomed to life behind bars and is the longest-serving inmate in North Carolina. Whether or not he is actually guilty, the world may never know; however, it is clear that Phillips is a microcosm, but an important one, of a larger issue with the criminal justice system. Even though he has gotten used to prison, he certainly should no longer be there.
Phillips was convicted of sexual assault back in 1952. At the time, he was only 18 years old and in the ninth grade. That’s correct. He was 18 and still in the 9thgrade. At the time of his arrest, he was ordered to be evaluated by a state mental hospital. In the 1950s, segregation was still alive and well in the South. Phillips was evaluated at a mental hospital designated for black people. That hospital designated him a “moron” and stated that he had the mind of a 7-year-old. While we might use a more politically-correct term today, he clearly had intellectual disabilities that have likely not improved behind bars. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Now, he calls prison his home. His nickname is Peanut and he uses a cane to get around. According to Phillips, he lost his desire to live in the outside world decades ago. While he is housed at Randolph Correctional, which is a minimum-security facility, he says that there are “too many fools out there.”
His experiences highlight the major flaws in our justice system for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Phillips does not have the tools to advocate for himself either in prison or in court. He doesn’t understand the justice system. He lives by the prison rules (well, apparently, as he has not had any disciplinary infractions in 30 years), and continues to maintain his innocence.
Yes, despite entering a guilty plea years ago, he says that he hasn’t done anything wrong. The court and medical records from back then make this claim impossible to test; however, since DNA became a regularity, it appears that intellectually disabled defendants regularly make false confessions.
Picture taken 1991 and is courtesy of the NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES