Pennsylvania is one of only six states that denies inmates sentenced to life in prison the possibility of parole. While Philadelphia housed just 370 elderly prisoners in 1980, there are now more than 8,000 elderly inmates confined in Philadelphia prisons, including the Graterford State Correctional Institution located in Schwenksville, PA. “The Mayor of Graterford,” a social justice documentary produced by students at Villanova University, examines the issue of life without parole sentencing and the commutation process in Pennsylvania through the experiences of current and former inmates. “The Mayor of Graterford” will premiere at 7 p.m., May 5 at the Connelly Center Cinema on Villanova University’s main campus. The screening is free and open to the public.
The documentary follows Tyrone Werts, a former Graterford prisoner nicknamed the “Mayor of Graterford” by other inmates at the facility, who was sentenced to life without parole in 1975 for second degree murder following a crime committed by his friend. During his time at Graterford, Tyrone received his GED, as well as a degree from Villanova University. Tyrone served more than 36 years with an impeccable prison record until his sentence was commuted in 2010. Commutation is the only outlet through which prisoners serving a life sentence can argue their case in hopes of gaining their freedom.
“The Mayor of Graterford tells the story of an ex-con reuniting with the men who became like his family over the decades he spent incarcerated and details the commutation process in Pennsylvania,” said Jack McCarthy, student director of the film. “Directing this film has been the single most rewarding college experience during my four years at Villanova University. Not only has this film pushed me to grow as a filmmaker, but also as a human being.”
The documentary addresses concerns for juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole, and were granted their right to parole following the 2012 Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. A later Supreme Court case, Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), ensured that this decision applies retroactively for juveniles currently serving life sentences.
The film also follows John Pace, a former juvenile lifer who was released after serving 30 years in prison for a crime committed when he was 17-years-old. Pace now works alongside Werts with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which helps newly freed inmates reintegrate into society. Together, Pace and Werts advocate for the friends and fellow lifers they left behind, and have become role models in the fight for prison reform.
“The students in our class and the professors worked very hard to present a thoughtful, balanced look into the issue of life without parole sentencing in Pennsylvania,” said Stephen McWilliams, PhD, MFA, and Director of the Social Justice Documentary program. “The students and professors learned a great deal about the complexities and imperfections of our criminal justice system and the enormous challenges faced by those entrusted in providing ‘justice for all.’”
Other interviewees in the film include former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who commuted Werts’ sentence in 2010; Pennsylvania State House Representative Jason Dawkins, who has introduced a bill which would eliminate life without parole and grant lifers who have already served 15 years or more eligibility for parole; John Wetzel, the current Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections; Mark Singel, former Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania; and Ernie Preate, former Attorney General of Pennsylvania.
The trailer for “The Mayor of Graterford” is available for viewing at this link.