In April of this year, Jon Yount, a man who loved freedom, took the last step in a complex, seventy-four-year life journey. He hanged himself in a state prison in southern Pennsylvania. For most people, such an act by a “convict” is of little significance. But Jon Yount’s life, on the contrary, was very significant. He had a brilliant and productive mind; and his story provides confirmation of the irrationality of a criminal justice system that refuses to accept that individuals who have fallen can change dramatically and make important contributions to society.
One fateful rainy evening in 1966, Yount, then a twenty-seven-year-old high-school math teacher in the small town of Dubois, Pennsylvania, committed a horrible crime. For reasons never fully explained, he brutally killed one of his female students. He turned himself in the next day. It was a crime that he never denied, a crime for which the people of Dubois never forgave him. A court found him guilty of first-degree murder and gave him life without parole.
But Yount didn’t wilt in the face of a sentence many people call the “living death.” Over the next forty years, Yount transformed himself into a gifted jailhouse lawyer and anti-racist intellectual, contributing his time and analytical skills to cases that won important reforms on behalf of his incarcerated colleagues.
The key engine of Yount’s transformation was his membership in the “Lifers’ Group” at Huntingdon State Prison, where he spent more than a decade and a half. Harriet Kaylor, a leader of the local chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, visited Huntingdon and the Lifers regularly as part of her Quaker prisoner solidarity work. The Lifers were a predominantly African-American group that had won the right to run the prison’s concession of soda. They dispersed all the proceeds of their work—thousands of dollars—to local charities. The Lifers held weekly discussion groups on issues of personal responsibility and the ways that they could “give back.” Kaylor, who attended their meetings for several years, said that Yount consistently pushed the group to become involved in prison reform and to bring in outside speakers on topical issues. Building on the foundation of the Lifers’ Group, Yount embarked on self-directed research and legal campaigns on three important and far-reaching quality of life issues for incarcerated people: census enumeration frameworks, affordable communication, and voting rights.
Over the years Yount’s energetic personality and deep-seated commitment to change helped him build a broad network of friends, lawyers, and prison-reform advocates who respected his depth of analysis and strategic vision. Peter Wagner, now Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), credits Yount’s research with framing the mission of his project back in the late 1990s. At the time, Wagner was a young researcher investigating the ways in which those devising census rules and regulations manipulated prison populations by a process that has come to be known as “prison-based gerrymandering.” According to census-taking policy, incarcerated people are counted as residents of the city where their prison is located, not where they lived before they were locked up.
While criminal justice reformers struggled to figure out what the census bureau’s prison count meant, an extensive study by Yount in 1998 zeroed in on the crucial aspect of the practice: the demarcation of state legislative districts. In some state districts, up to 10 percent of the population was made up of people behind bars who could not vote, diluting the votes of every resident in the state who did not live next to a large prison. Legislators with large prisons in their districts could then use their extra political clout to push for longer sentences and more prison construction. In addition to playing a major role in the formation of the PPI, Yount’s refocusing of the census issue influenced successful legislative campaigns in states like New York, Maryland, Delaware, and California. For more than a decade, Yount served on the PPI’s advisory board and communicated regularly with Wagner on this issue.
Yount’s second major legal focus was combating the excessive phone charges that Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) levied against people inside. Without access to cellphones or email, those incarcerated remain crucially dependent on their prison’s suite of landlines to communicate with families, friends, and legal representatives. Yount’s research in the early 2000s revealed that the charges for this monopoly service were massively inflated, garnering super-profits for the provider, T-Netix. Yount’s investigation also revealed the hypocrisy behind this practice: at the same time that the DOC touted the importance of phone communication for keeping people in touch with their families, it was taking kickbacks from T-Netix. According to Yount’s submission to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, the DOC received more than $3 million in a single year for this collusion with the company. This practice outraged the Utilities Commission, and it ruled in favor of Yount’s appeal, forcing a refund of inappropriate charges.
But even more far-reaching than the phone charges case was Yount’s participation in Mixon v. Commonwealth, which expanded the voting rights of those with felony convictions. Before this case, a person who served time for a felony in Pennsylvania could not cast a ballot for five years after their release if they had not registered to vote before entering prison. In collaboration with attorney Sam Stretton, who filed the actual suit in 2000, Yount turned the law upside down, giving all people on parole in Pennsylvania voting rights.
Yount managed to produce a vast number of legal documents from the confines of his cell, where at best he was armed only with an electric typewriter. Jim Scofield, an English teacher at a local college who visited Yount over the course of several years, recalled Yount’s battles to obtain a simple correction tape for the typewriter. Despite many attempts by Scofield and others to supply the tape or connect with vendors, the prison authorities refused to cooperate. Yount was confined to correcting the errors on his submissions with whatever material the underground prison economy could provide. But technical obstacles didn’t stop Jon Yount.
What Motivated Jon Yount?
Yount’s legal success was rooted in his personal transformation. Though not inclined toward self-promotion or written reflection, there are a few clues to this process in his writings, and more can be gleaned from those who knew him. To begin with, he rejected simple notions of remorse, arguing that after a long time in prison, “if you just sit around all the time and try to find out what’s wrong with yourself, instead of looking for positive things that you bring to this world, you end up being a much lesser individual than you are capable of and [less] than society wants you to be.”
Stretton saw an additional factor at work: Yount, he said, “loved freedom.” Unlike most people with a life sentence, he did taste freedom briefly. When he first entered prison, the average term for a person doing life for first-degree murder was twelve years. In 1986, after he had spent nearly two decades behind bars as a model citizen, he became frustrated by repeated denials of his requests for sentence commutation. One afternoon he escaped from a minimum-security facility with his lover, Diane Brodbeck, a local housewife and mother of two who had been one of Yount’s regular visitors. For two-and-a-half years, using the name Jim Forsgren, Yount lived in Idaho where he and Diane established themselves as caring and responsible citizens of the community. However, when his case appeared on the network TV series Unsolved Mysteries, a neighbor turned them in. Though his Idaho landlord and other neighbors assured the courts they would provide Yount with housing and welcome him back to their community, the authorities refused to commute his life sentence. Yount was to be stuck inside forever. In prison parlance, he was “through with money.” Whatever freedom he would taste would be vicarious, the freedom he could help procure for others via his legal work.
Jon Yount’s Anti-Racist Legacy
While Yount’s major documented successes were in the courts, he ultimately came to locate his research within a broader social justice framework. He was not merely what people inside call a “legal beagle.” Scofield noted that Yount read widely and was thrilled to receive a subscription to the Nation, which he shared with his colleagues. “Jon was aware of things beyond his own circumstances,” Scofield observed. He saw “the problems of poverty in the country and the pseudo-class system.”
Yount’s reflections on the racial dimensions of the U.S. criminal justice system are the best testament to the breadth of his political vision. Long before Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow brought notions of the racialized nature of mass incarceration into the public eye, Yount compiled a systematic analysis of the racial politics of incarceration in Pennsylvania in his 1998 essay, “Felon Disenfranchisement: Pennsylvania’s Sinister Face of Vote Dilution.” In this work he spoke out candidly about the role of politicians in racializing incarceration:
A commonly expressed indictment of politicians is that they collectively respond only to money and/or votes. Unfortunately, the growing number of incarcerated Black and Hispanic felons has little of the former and none of the latter!
The essay went on to condemn the increasing rates of incarceration at the time as a “systemic predation upon minorities,” which Yount categorized as “an invidious form of gerrymandering that substantially dilutes the access of minorities to the ballot as well as to preferred representation in government.” Yount then issued a call to action, urging the disenfranchised to “join with community-based, minority-interest groups in a judicial challenge to this invidious agenda…”
“I want to be free.”
Although Yount remained a model of prisoner discipline after his escape and return to prison, his uncompromising advocacy eventually caught up with him. Ironically, the Pennsylvania authorities transferred him from Huntingdon to a remote maximum-security facility in Greene County not after his escape and re-arrest, but after his resounding victory in the phone charges litigation in 2008. Yount called his new home “Siberia-South.” There, separated from the members of the Lifers’ Group who had provided him sustenance for so many years and far from those who visited him regularly, Yount sunk into depression, which finally led to his suicide. According to Stretton, the suicide was perhaps a moment “where Jon just said, ‘I want to be free.’”
Yount’s intellect, legal insight, and selfless dedication to the cause of those in prison had a deep impact on those who worked with him. In eulogizing Yount, Peter Wagner noted that “Jon…spent the rest of his life showing…that he was much better than his worst act.” Ultimately, this transformed former teacher stood for the rights of incarcerated people as full human beings: entitled to maintain family ties, to be seen as more than fodder for enumeration and voting games. As Scofield put it, “Jon cared about other people; he cared about the nation, the world.”
However, we would be wrong to commemorate Jon Yount as a solitary crusader. No one succeeds in prison alone. Yount’s strength and understanding emerged from his relationships with many other incarcerated men who shared their experiences and insights with him and helped him to apply his analytical talents to the law and other issues. They will remain invisible to the public, gagged behind prison walls; their roles in his legal victories will go unnoticed. But Yount’s lifer colleagues were central to his transformation from a conservative, small-town, white teacher into an anti-racist intellectual with a powerful critique of the system of mass incarceration and a nuanced understanding of national and world politics.
There are good ways to honor the memory of Jon Yount, a man who should be remembered. The first is to work to re-shape popular thinking about the invisible people in prisons, focusing on their potential to make positive contributions to society. Second, we should continue to expose the financial and political interests that sustain our prison system. This system hounded Yount to his death, rather than recognizing and rewarding him for his contributions to advancing the human rights of the colleagues and comrades from whom he drew his strength.
James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is also the author of three novels: We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests, and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his six-and-a-half years of incarceration. Teresa Barnes is an Associate Professor of History and Gender/Women’s Studies at University of Illinois.
Photo of Jon Yount reprinted from Doing Life © Good Books. Used by permission. All rights reserved.