Tyrone Werts doesn’t leave the house unless he’s wearing a suit.
“I do that because of racial profiling in the city,” said Werts, a public relations consultant at the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program housed at Temple. “I don’t want to be walking down the street in a pair of jeans, Timbs and a hoodie, because what happens if the police stop me, pull me over, because I look like someone who committed a crime? Anything can happen.”
With an active life-on-parole sentence, Werts said he has to constantly be aware of his surroundings because any misstep, any false accusation, could “land [him] right back in prison, with [his] life sentence back.”
“It’s a part of my psyche every day,” Werts said. “Every time I step out the door.”
One night in 1975, Werts sat in the car while some of his friends committed an armed robbery.
“I told them I would have nothing to do with it, and I stayed in the car and waited for them,” he said. “Someone was shot and killed.”
Despite his lack of direct involvement in the crime, Werts was convicted of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pennsylvania law states “lifers,” or prisoners given life sentences, can never become eligible for parole unless they win an appeal, receive a pardon or get their sentence commuted.
“I wasn’t delusional about my situation,” he said. “I
knew that, unless the law changed, I was going to die in prison. … I walked the yard for two months, just purging myself of any hope, any possibility of getting out.”
“A few years later, here I am walking the streets of Philadelphia,” Werts added.
Werts was the exception that proved the rule—his life sentence without parole was commuted into a 36-year sentence with life on parole.
“It’s hard to explain that feeling, going from, ‘I’m going to die in prison,’ to ‘You’re going home,’” Werts said. “It was tremendous.”
While he was incarcerated, Werts was an active member of his community. He worked with organizations Fresh Holes, a decision-making program for people in prison, and Reconstruction, Inc., which focuses on rates of re-entry among prisoners. He was the inside chairman of the End Violence Project and the president of the Lifers Association for more than 20 years.
But Werts said his proudest accomplishments were not his volunteering experiences, but rather those that furthered his education. He earned his GED and his bachelor’s degree from Villanova University while incarcerated, and he took Inside Out courses with Temple as an inside student.
Founded by Lori Pompa, a professor of criminal justice at Temple, Inside Out brings together college students with people who are serving time in prison. The 15-week course unites the groups in a classroom setting, and it is based on a “pedagogy of dialogue,” Werts said.
Werts and Pompa met more than 30 years ago, and Pompa specifically asked him to be a student in the first Inside Out course taught at Graterford in 2002.
“When people get life sentences, there are people who will write them off and say, ‘That’s it. That’s the end of their life,’” Pompa said. “I have met some men on the inside for whom the life sentence did not get in the way of living. Tyrone is one of these men.”
Now, Pompa said Werts is “one of the major faces of Inside Out.”
Werts still feels lucky to have served only 36 years of his life sentence. Though he is no longer the president of the 800-member Lifers Association, Werts said he always tries to represent lifers “in an honorable and dignified way.”
“When I was inside, I was just like everybody else,” Werts said. “When I come outside, and I put a suit on, people are like, ‘Oh, I thought you were a judge or a lawyer or something.’ No, actually, I’m a lifer. I served 36 years. … I try to be a visual representation of who they are.”
“I carry the weight of the 5,000 men and women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania,” Werts added. “I carry them on my back.”
Michaela Winberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.