Doing time in the north: At least 788 Puerto Ricans are sentenced to life in prison in the United States

Photomontage by Ricardo Rodríguez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

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For Samuel Serrano, going to prison is like disappearing. And he knows from experience that many stay inside. He is Puerto Rican, owns an auto repair shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the state with the most people born in Puerto Rico serving sentences in state prisons.

There are 788 persons who were born in Puerto Rico and are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison just in the six states with the largest Puerto Rican population — Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — according to data from December 2022 and February 2023, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found.

There were 1.2 million people incarcerated in the United States by the end of 2021. One in seven is sentenced to life in prison, more than 200,000 in total, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that investigates racial discrimination in the US penal system.

Pennsylvania is the third state with the largest Puerto Rican population in the United States. But it has more Puerto Ricans incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison than Florida, the state with the largest Puerto Rican population.

Puerto Rican cultural symbols could be seen in Kensington’s businesses. Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“Pennsylvania’s punishment is exceptionally harsh compared to other states… Pennsylvania has the second highest number of people with life without parole sentences in the country,” said Andrea Lindsay, director of Strategic Initiatives at Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, an organization that provides free legal services to low-income individuals with criminal records.

It took Serrano an escape and two imprisonments that combined took away almost a decade of freedom, but he got out. He reappeared in the same neighborhood where they arrested him: Kensington, north of Philadelphia, the largest city in Pennsylvania.

It’s been 26 years since Serrano served his last sentence. And now, one morning in early summer, Serrano is taking care of a client in his auto repair shop, kneeling with a flashlight shining under a car, while smoking a cigarette. When he’s done, he goes into an office that he has in the same workshop and sits behind a desk. When he remembers something, he looks up and crosses his hands over his chest. If he mentions a street, he points to the air as if indicating its direction.

“Most of the guys who hang out here in the street with us disappear. And when one is imprisoned , you meet up with them in there,” he says. He speaks in the present. But he’s referring to when he was working the streets of Philadelphia in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

“When I worked, no, when I hustled,” he corrects himself. “There at 5th and Glenwood, with Los Hernández, a very large drug organization.”


Samuel Serrano sits in his office surrounded by familiar photos. Photo by Ryan Collard | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Fifth and Glenwood streets meet in Fairhill, a Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philadelphia. There is a bodega there called “La Familia Latina.” And almost next to it seats a broken-down brick building: an abandoned factory bordering a railroad track, a vestige of a vanished industrial age. Serrano’s auto shop is half an hour from that corner, in Kensington, another predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in this section of the city known as North Philly.

“I’m born and raised here in Philly. My mom is from San Lorenzo and my dad is from Ponce, Puerto Rico,” Serrano says in Spanish with a bit of an accent. The phone rings and to answer it he switches to English: “What’s up brother? I’m good…” The father worked for the city Sanitation Department and the mother worked at home. They emigrated from Puerto Rico when they were 20 years old, in the 1970s.

The guys who disappeared from the streets and whom Serrano saw again when he was arrested were also Puerto Ricans from this dense area of the city, where there are gardens with statues of the Virgin Mary, flanked by Puerto Rican flags and big speakers blasting salsa.

In Fairhill, in North Philadelphia, an abandoned factory recalls the vanished industrial age. Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

No right to parole

The leading causes of incarceration among Puerto Ricans in the United States are drug trafficking and first-degree murder.

Of the 274 Puerto Ricans who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison in Pennsylvania, 199 were sentenced to life without parole, the CPI found. And another 75 have sentences of 50 years or more, something that is classified as a “virtual life sentence” by The Sentencing Project.

Among Puerto Ricans sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania, 192 were charged with first-degree murder, which is when the victim’s death is considered intentional. And 34 were charged with second-degree murder, which is when the victim’s death is considered unintentional. Pennsylvania imposes a mandatory life sentence on those accused of second-degree murder, which includes people who had no direct role in the victim’s death.

In 2021, Lindsay published a study on the population sentenced to life in prison, without the right to parole, for second-degree murder in Pennsylvania. And it revealed that 73.3% of that prison population was 25 years old or younger when charged. Additionally, four out of five were “people of color,” a term used in the United States to encompass a diverse range of “non-white” people; and seven in 10 identified as Black people.

“Putting this data out there was an opportunity to be able to think with more facts about like, what are we actually talking about and who are we talking about with these sentences,” Lindsay said in an interview with the CPI.

Most of the Puerto Ricans incarcerated in Pennsylvania are at State Correctional Institution, in Chester, 35-minute drive distance from Philadelphia. Map data ©2022 Google

There are people born in almost every municipality in Puerto Rico who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania. Some birth town names are recorded by the Pennsylvania Department of Correction with errors, such as Myia West, for Mayagüez, Aponito for Aibonito, Luguillo for Luquillo, Ballamon for Bayamón, Mega Baja for Vega Baja, and San Sevassta for San Sebastián.

Among the 1,431 Puerto Ricans incarcerated in Pennsylvania, 60 noted that their legal place of residence was Puerto Rico. The others reported Pennsylvania as the place of residence. But there are also Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico, residents of the states of Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Kansas, California, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas, serving sentences in Pennsylvania.

In the documents that the Pennsylvania Department of Correction provided to the CPI, those sentenced have entry and exit dates. In the case of those sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison, the release date box appears blank. Others have exit dates like January 16, 2172.

“[In prison] we killed time, as they say, playing basketball, handball, baseball. Everyone gets along well,” says Serrano. He again speaks in the present, as if he had not left there. The wall behind him is lined with framed certificates, licenses, and permits, along with photos of his wife and his two children, a two-year-old and a three-year-old. Outside the office, the grinding noise of the workshop is heard, where two employees, also Puerto Ricans, work.

“Although, there are always problems, you know what I mean,” Serrano continues.

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“Because there are many gangs in the federal and state as well. In all the prisons that one goes to, there are the AB or the Aryan Brotherhood [a neo-Nazi organization], there are the Mexicans, the Latin Kings of New York are there, there’s always somebody who has problems. Some Puerto Ricans belong to the Latin Kings, but not everyone. Most spend time alone and just want to do their time to go home.

But there are many people doing time for life, I found many Puerto Ricans who are there for life,” says Serrano — who just turned 53 years old — lowering his voice, thoughtful, looking up at the ceiling.


It’s been 26 years since Serrano served his last sentence. Photo by Ryan Collard | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Serrano’s first disappearances

Serrano first disappeared from the streets of North Philly in 1986, when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, and the “Law and Order” policy was in force. During that year he was held in a juvenile detention center, in cabins surrounded by trees in a semi-rural area of Pennsylvania.

He calls it “the school” because they offered classes and workshops there. If he completed the chores and behaved, he earned points that turned into permission to visit his family on weekends. He was also given a weekly stipend. Officially called Sleighton Farm School, it was founded with the mission of “re-educating youth at-risk, most from unstable homes.”

Every time he was let out, Serrano was memorizing the path. He started saving the stipend. A year and a half passed until one night, together with two friends, they opened one door, then another: they emerged into a dark and grassy landscape. They walked, says Serrano, “by the properties of the white people there, of the Americans,” green yards with large white wooden houses. They were going in the direction of the only train station through which they could escape.

But there the detention center guards were waiting for them.

The only choice they had left was to run down the tracks. They ran, and they reached another station. And they waited until the Market Frankfurt Line train, the “L,” arrived, headed for Kensington, Philadelphia. The guards looked “everywhere” for Serrano. They went to his mother’s house several times. But he had been living on the streets since he was 13 years old. He was 16 then, and they never found him.

“I was bad, I sold drugs, I smoked, young… I used crack, heroin, cocaine, I used everything. And my mom couldn’t stand me, so she threw me out.”

Manuscript map of Kensington in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican diaspora settled in Kensington and Fairhill, North Philadelphia, after it was displaced by racism and gentrification from the Spring Garden neighborhood during the height of deindustrialization in the late 1970s. When they arrived in North Philadelphia “they were literally refugees from that neighborhood, simultaneous with also a very poor greater migration [from Puerto Rico],” says anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, in an interview with the CPI.

With no jobs in that part of the city, devastated by government austerity and factory closures, a large part of the Puerto Rican diaspora joined the “global narcotics market” that came to unseat the area’s economic vacuum, Bourgois explains.

One of the largest drug markets on the East Coast operates between the neighborhoods of Kensington and Fairhill, where Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican diaspora is clustered, and the poverty and incarceration rates are the highest in the entire city.

Puerto Rican flag waves in a window on a residential street in the Kensington neighborhood, in Philadelphia. Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Reagan’s failed war on drugs was still raging in 1988. That year, the city of Philadelphia was poised to break its murder record. By the end of the year there would be 400. One morning, at about six o’clock, a dozen patrol cars surrounded a block of Kensington. They arrested around 15 people. One of them was Serrano. He was 18, he was already an adult, so he would have to serve three years in state prison.

“My cellmate in state was a boy I had known since I was 10 years old, from Hunting Park [another North Philadelphia neighborhood]. A Boricua from the streets for real. He was doing 10 years. He’s settled down now and is remodeling houses. In any prison you go to, you will meet someone from the street,” says Serrano.

In 1988, the year that Serrano went to state prison, eight other Puerto Ricans were incarcerated in Pennsylvania. In 2023 there are still incarcerated, seven of them sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder. The other one, incarcerated for rape, is suppose to be released in 2036.

That does not mean that they were the only Puerto Ricans to be incarcerated that year. Because those who have already completed their sentences don’t appear on the lists the CPI got from the correction departments of the six states with the most Puerto Ricans.

If Serrano were still in prison, he wouldn’t appear on that list either. Because they only counted those born in Puerto Rico, the rest, Puerto Ricans born in the United States like Serrano, were left invisible among the categories of White, Black o Hispanic, broad and ambiguous terms that have made Puerto Ricans and the national origin of Latino people invisible since forever.

LSerrano’s second and last disappearance

Serrano works Monday through Saturday in his auto repair shop in Kensington, where he was born and raised.Photo by Ryan Collard | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Serrano was released from state prison in 1992. He went back to his old ways, to the same neighborhood of his native Philadelphia, but to a different corner. Before he was on the corner of Hancock and Dauphin Streets, or 5th and Glenwood. Each one of Serrano’s arrests has cardinal points and dates that mark a map — territorial and temporal — that is very personal, but at the same time shared by an entire community.

“Virtually every ‘hustler’ who made ‘hand-to-hand’ retail sales on the regular six-to twelve-hour shifts, and most caseworkers in the spatially enclaved economic niche we studied were arrested — often multiple times within a few months of being hired. The police relied on racial profiling (customers= whites/sellers= Puerto Ricans) and primarily targeted hand-to-hand sellers and customers during their frequent raids,” said Bourgois and a group of anthropologists who conducted extensive field research in North Philadelphia. The result was the article “The Violence of the American Dream in the Segregated US Inner-City Narcotics Markets of the Puerto Rican Colonial Diaspora,” published in 2021 in the book “Cocaine: From Coca Fields to the Streets.”

Serrano’s new corner after he got out of prison was Lawrence and Indiana Streets in Fairhill. He was selling again, but this time “big,” he says, not with pride but as something real he can’t downplay. Among his clients he had a faithful one: another Puerto Rican like him who had been buying drugs from him for about five months. And as a good fellow countryman, he sat down with him to drink in a bar.

One day someone told Serrano, “I’ve seen that guy, I saw him once when I was in the federal.” It turned out that the compatriot was an undercover federal agent. Serrano quickly moved, again, from the corner. Up until March 5, 1992, when several cars surrounded him and another agent approached him and said, “Sam we were looking for you.”

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Serrano replied that he did not know who he was talking about, as if he were not him. But the agent, named James, “I will never forget his name,” Serrano says, told him to lift his shirt and identified him by his tattoos and a photo that had been taken of him when he was first incarcerated. That day they arrested him again. He spent five years incarcerated in federal custody.

At the time of his second arrest, Serrano was out on probation. Something that is repeated constantly. Among the more than 1,000 Puerto Ricans incarcerated in Pennsylvania, 68 are repeat offenders who violated their probation, according to data from March 2023.

In Pennsylvania overall, the most recent recidivism rate (people being re-arrest or re-incarcerated) was 64%, within three years of serving the original sentence. Of that total, 75% recidivated within the first 16 months after being released from prison. And an estimated one in 10 arrested by police is a “former Pennsylvania Department of Correction inmate.” An estimate that has increased since the last report, according to the agency.


El estado de Pensilvania le concedió a Serrano la eliminación de sus antecedentes penales. Foto por Ryan Collard | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The Persistence of Prison

On November 17, 1997, Serrano got out and had already decided that it was enough, that he would not set foot in prison again. He was 26 years old. All his cases had been for drugs. In the federal prison, although “controlled substances” are accessible, he managed to break his addiction.

“El que quiere cambiar, cambia. Porque hay suficiente oportunidad, hay programas que uno puede aprovecharse. En la federal yo hice muchos programas. Deja ver si lo tengo aquí”. Se pone a buscar en una gaveta de su escritorio. “Porque yo siempre guardo ‘to”. Y saca uno de sus certificados del Departamento de Corrección. También tiene un archivo grande con más documentos. Al rato saca uno que parece el más importante. Está dentro de una carpeta de tapa dura y tiene un sello grande color oro.

“He who wants to change, changes. Because there is enough opportunity, there are programs that one can take advantage of. In the federal prison I completed many programs. Let me see if I have it here.” He starts looking in a drawer in his desk. “Because I always keep everything.” And he pulls out one of his certificates from the Department of Corrections. He also has a large file with more documents. After a while he pulls out one that seems the most important. It is inside a hardcover folder and has a large gold seal.

“My case has been erased. I paid for a lawyer and in the year 2000 I went to the Supreme Court Boards of Pardon and the governor [of Pennsylvania] signed my expungement.” This way, if a policeman pulls him over for any reason, he won’t know that Serrano was incarcerated. Because for people who were imprisoned, even after completing their sentence, prison appears as a blemish that can only be erased with money.

And how did you get a job when you got out of prison and still hadn’t cleared the record? I ask.

“Easy,” he answers without hesitation. “I left on the 17th. On the 18th I was already working.” For reference, he got a job doing inventory for a company. Later he got another job in an auto repair workshop, and with the help of a brother-in-law he became certified as a mechanic, until he opened his own workshop in 2014.

But it’s not always so easy. Or not everyone has the same luck. The unemployment rate for people who were incarcerated in the United States has been 27% higher than the general unemployment rate in all historical periods, including during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a study by the Prison Policy Initiative found. This organization’s estimate establishes that people want to work when they leave prison, “but face structural barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release.”

“For those who are Black or Hispanic — especially women — status as ‘formerly incarcerated’ reduces their employment chances even more. This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle,” according to the study.

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Serrano’s decade-long cycle took him through juvenile detention, state prison, probation, and federal prison. When he opened his auto shop, he called it Resurrected Auto. He is on a street in the same neighborhood where he grew up and where his mother and all his Puerto Rican aunts and uncles live.

“My mom comes by here all the time,” says Serrano.

He works from 8 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, and Saturdays until 2:30. But every year without fail, he goes on vacation to Puerto Rico.


Samuel Serrano named his business Resurrected Auto Repair. Photo by Ryan Collard | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“Two or three times a year, I close everything up and we leave. I like to travel. About three months ago we got in my SUV and went to Kentucky. I go wherever I want. I’ve been to Mexico, Honduras, in November we went to St. Thomas, I’ve been to Jamaica,” says Serrano before going back to the workshop to work with his two employees. It’s almost noon and the customers keep coming.