Nancy Sponeybarger was 21 when she arrived to work as a counselor at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Muncy. The year was 1971. “I was fresh out of college and I thought I was going to change the world,” she says and laughs. “Yeah, right.”
What she found was an overcrowded and dysfunctional women’s prison where, as she describes it, “the ‘women’ were girls—and they were invisible. Staff would talk about them right in front of their faces like they weren’t there.” One deputy warden made it a habit to feed her dog in front of them using the “officers’ china”—as opposed to the cheap plates used by inmates. Worse than such minor humiliations were the major instances of abuse. While Nancy left shortly before the arrival of Trina Garnett, a teenage prisoner who was raped and impregnated by a prison guard, she remembers “other women that had gotten pregnant at Muncy.… That was kind of an occurrence that happened. And people kept it very, very, very quiet.”
Soon after arriving at Muncy, Nancy met Sharon Wiggins, who had been convicted, along with two young men, of robbing a bank and killing a customer in the process. Although she was only 17 at the time of her crime, she was sentenced to death. Two years later, a three-judge panel reduced her sentence to life without parole.
African-American and 5 foot 3, Sharon “was this little, little thing,” Nancy recalls. Yet she stood out as someone who would try to protect her fellow prisoners, particularly those who were younger than her. When she saw something that she felt was wrong, she would not keep quiet. “As a counselor,” Nancy says, “I would say, ‘You need to let this go,’ and she would say, ‘It’s the principle of the thing.’ And you know, my counsel was, ‘The hell with the principle of the thing. This is the system and you need to not get written up!’ ”
“As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity,” Nancy says.
Nancy left Muncy in 1976. Today she is retired. Sharon never left. Today, she is 60 years old.
“I visit Sharon every month,” Nancy says. She sends her money to help her get what she needs—which these days, is a lot. “Her health isn’t okay. She’s had heart surgery. She has a stent. She has high blood pressure. She has stomach problems. She’s just, you know, she’s 60. Sharon’s 60. She’s not a kid anymore.”
Breaking the Law
A June US Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, declared that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile defendants. Numbers compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicate there are more than 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide.
According to those same numbers, eight states and the District of Columbia were entirely unaffected by the Miller ruling, as they prohibit mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences and have no prisoners serving that sentence. (Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and West Virgina.) Colorado, which has forty-eight juvenile lifers, abolished juvenile life without parole a few years ago; Texas and Kentucky, with five apiece, have also gotten rid of it, as has Montana, which is home to just one juvenile lifer. (What the decision means for those prisoners is not yet clear, but Colorado's prisoners, who were sentenced under mandatory statutes, should be entitled to a resentencing hearing.)