Life Without Parole - LWOP. Absent the death penalty it’s the harshest prison term that can be meted out. But what does it really mean? And has anyone ever truly done a life sentence?
The answer is yes and no.
There have been many lifers who have died in prison; with many of them passing well short of what would be considered an average lifespan. Consequently, trying to quantify a really long sentence that way is next to impossible. But what about in terms of years alone? Who has done the longest stretch of LWOP but left alive?
As of now, the longest verifiable prison term in US history appears to have been served by Paul Geidel who, was sentenced to prison for murder in 1911 and not released until 1980.
Paul Geidel was born on April 21, 1894, in Hartford Connecticut to an alcoholic saloon keeper who died when the boy was just five. Paul spent much of his childhood in an orphanage before finally dropping out of school at the age of fourteen to work a series of menial jobs.
He was seventeen when, on July 26, 1911, he decided to rob William H. Jackson, a wealthy broker, who was a guest at the Iroquois Hotel on West 44th Street in New York City.
As a former bellhop at the hotel, Geidel knew the layout of the building and was able to sneak into Mr. Jackson's room and suffocate him to death with a rag filled with chloroform.
Despite his grand plans however, Mr. Jackson wasn’t carrying much money and Geidel only got away with a few dollars.
Geidel was arrested two days late and subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison for 20 years to life at Sing Sing in upstate New York.
In 1926 he was being considered for parole for good behavior but prison doctors intervened claiming Geidel was legally insane. He was then moved to the Dannemora State Hospital for the Criminal Insane, where he was confined until 1972. He was then moved to the Fishkill Correctional Facility where he lived in a unit designed for elderly inmates that more resembled a dormitory, rather than a prison.
As Geidel's tenure in prison went by, he developed a rapport with prison officials, who sometimes took the old man out to a baseball game, or other outings.
Geidel was granted parole in August 1974, but the now 80 year old inmate did not want to leave. Having lived in prison for his entire adult life - and having no family - he believed that he would not make it on the outside. So instead he voluntarily remained incarcerated for almost six more years.
Finally, after 68 years and 245 days behind bars, Paul Geidel left Fishkill on May 7, 1980, with the dubious title of having served the longest prison sentence in American history. When confronted by reporters as he was leaving, Geidel simply smiled and said "no publicity please." It is believed Geidel lived out the remainder of his days in a Dutchess County nursing home. He died in May 1987.
As far as second longest amount of time in prison; it would appear that title could be claimed by Richard Honeck.
A telegraph operator by trade, Honeck was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Menard Penitentiary in Chester Illinois in 1899 for murdering his former schoolteacher. He was 84 years old in November, 1963, when newspapers reported he was finally being considered for parole.
Prison officials reported during his sixty four years behind bars Honeck only received one letter; a four line note from his brother in 1902 and a visit from a friend in 1904. The next visitor didn’t come until Associated Press reporter Bob Poos brought media attention to the case. After the story made headlines, Poos authored a follow up article claiming the elderly murderer had subsequently received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a marriage proposal from a woman in Germany, offers of employment and gifts of money in sums ranging from .25 cents to $5.
Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, commented, "It'll take a long time to deal with these. I guess I'd have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the 87-year-old prisoner concluded when interviewed by Poos. "There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.”
While it's technically not LWOP, an inmate by the name of Francis Clifford Smith currently owns the record for a US inmate who is still behind bars. Smith was originally sentenced to 999 years, 99 months and 999 days in prison for murder in the State of Connecticut. As of August 2021, he is apparently still there. This would make his sentence record setting each day he is incarcerated.