Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Samuel Barlow

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Sam is sweating in the folding chair next to me in this crumbling cell. We’re on the third floor of block 12 of America’s most historic prison, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, ground zero in our country’s story of punishment.

Eastern State is now a museum and significant tourist attraction, and Sam, incredibly, is a free man. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf commuted his sentence just four months ago, in May of 2019, after Sam had spent fifty years in prison, including a stretch right here on death row at Eastern State in 1968 as an eighteen-year-old.

And yet Sam’s not sweating half as bad as I am. I’m floored by his calm and his cool. In his former life he was part of a bank robbery at the Dauphin Deposit Trust Company in Harrisburg, during which his teenage accomplices shot and killed a customer. Death row is block 15, near us in the stone maze.

This place was a landmark laboratory for reforming a man, the country’s first “penitentiary,” with an eye on not just punishment but reformation, rehabilitation. At least they gave it some thought. How do you change a person for the better? How do you save a troubled soul?

Sam probably has better answers than most. I’m amazed watching him walk unfazed through the blocks of this nearly two-hundred-year-old fortress where he began his long road of punishment and penance. He seems undisturbed sitting in a hot, airless cell for an hour and a half, talking to us. He doesn’t seem bothered in the least, like the cell and the stone, the gloom and the history, like none of it has any hold on him anymore. He tells me he realized a long time ago that the prison itself wasn’t his enemy.

Fifty years. Who out there has spent more time in American prison? It’s fitting that some see in Sam a powerful representative of lifers in America.

We’re here for a conversation about his half an American century locked up, about the manuscript he’s written (working title: “Life Without Murder”), about this wickedly stunning place, and about youth and ignorance and growth.

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The Rumpus: I just wanted to say first of all, it’s a real pleasure to talk to you, Sam, thank you for joining us here today.

Samuel Barlow: Absolutely.

Rumpus: Does this cell feel the same?

Barlow: Yeah, it kind of feels like the same way I walked into the cell fifty years ago. No matter how long you’re free, you never get away from that feeling of being incarcerated. Never.

Rumpus: It’s nice knowing the door’s still open though, right? No lock on that.

Barlow: No lock on that. That’s right.

Rumpus: Does this look like the death row cell you were in here?

Barlow: This looks exactly like the death row cell I was in. The dirt and the toilet in the corner and the little window. It all looks the same.

Rumpus: Medieval is the word for it. A reminder of cellblock summers. So you were just recently released after fifty years of prison here in the state of Pennsylvania for a felony murder charge, being part of a group that committed a bank robbery. It led to one individual’s death. That was in 1968.

Barlow: December 2, 1968.

Rumpus: You still remember that date. You were eighteen. Now you’re sixty-eight and you’ve been free for four months. Here’s something else which is kind of fascinating, Sam, you having lived so long to see all this. Eastern State, which was your crucible, right, now here we are and it’s a museum. It’s got to be trippy seeing these tourists walking through it. How does that make you feel?

Barlow: Eastern State Penitentiary is where the idea of prison all started, so it is the best place if you’re talking about prison reform, if you’re talking about educating the general population about prisons. This is the best place to start, where it all began.

Rumpus: They call it America’s most historic prison. Yes, but that’s a weird thing, right, because I also did hear you say in one interview, well, I’m not so sure it should be a museum. Your implication was that they should tear the thing down.

Barlow: Yes, they should.

Rumpus: Why do you feel that way?

Barlow: My grandfather used to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When they build a prison, they expect it to last eighty to a hundred years. That’s five or six generations. So people that are not yet born, sixty years from now will be in the prisons they build today. If my great-great-grandfather was here, then you should tear it down. Why should I be here? I shouldn’t even have the opportunity to live in here.

Rumpus: We should do better as a society. What do you think, Sam? Do you agree that we don’t need to incarcerate as many people as we do?

Barlow: You need incarceration for one reason only, to stop a person at that moment. Because most people when they commit crimes, they’re a different person. They’re not in their right minds. When you go in prisons now you encounter grown males, very few men. You’re calling them men but you’re actually punishing males because they haven’t matured yet.

Rumpus: I wanted to go back to the crime. Sorry to take you back to it. Of course these might be tough memories for you. So you were outside the bank when the shooting happened, is that correct? You were not inside the bank. 

Barlow: I was outside. Somebody came. He started into the bank and turned around to go back out and my codefendant yelled, “Get that guy! Make sure he don’t get away!” So I went back out and was about twelve to fourteen feet down the walk when he decided we’re going to turn around and go back in. At the time I didn’t know he was an off-duty police officer.

Rumpus: Was this George Morelock?

Barlow: No, George Morelock was the guy who got killed. I forget this guy’s name. He was an off-duty cop. But anyway, when he and I decided that we’re going to turn and go back in the bank that’s when the shots rang out. He went one way and I went the other way. I went toward the getaway car. He went around. He was a patron getting ready to come to the bank because it was the first day of hunting season, something that we city slickers wouldn’t know.

Rumpus: George Morelock. You know, I guess over the years in prison you probably did a lot of thinking about him.

Barlow: Yes, somebody asked me about that. How did I feel at the time that it happened? And I responded, “I didn’t think of him. I’ve never seen him, and I was too busy dealing with my own situation.” But as I got more conscious, four or five years down the road, then you start thinking about that person and you start saying, “Would I want somebody to do that to me?” Even as I was coming up for commutation at sixty-eight, I said to myself, “Here I am the same age that he was when he got killed. Would I want them to do that to me, the same way it was done to George Morelock?”

Rumpus: You repented, it seems.

Barlow: Absolutely.

Rumpus: What about your co-defendants, did they feel similarly?

Barlow: I don’t… I never had that conversation with them. One of my codefendants was a girl. Sharon Wiggins. She passed away in May 2013.

Rumpus: Did she die in prison?

Barlow: Yes, heart attack.

Rumpus: Oh, man. Where was she, what prison?

Barlow: Munsey, SCI [State Correctional Institution] Muncy.

Rumpus: Were you guys able to have any correspondence?

Barlow: She and I were able to talk to one another for the first couple of years, but after that we lost touch.

Rumpus: Was there bad blood, bad feelings? I know sometimes it’s like the other person becomes a reminder of some of the most horrible moments.

Barlow: Well, in her case a lot of people wanted her to be the face of the juvenile lifers.

Rumpus: Who did, activists, reformers?

Barlow: Yes, they went to interview her. They put her face on the front page. The people that were backing her at the time tried to paint her story as if she was sixteen, not seventeen getting ready to turn eighteen. And they tried to make me seem as if I was twenty-one.

Rumpus: Really, to distort it?

Barlow: Yes, to distort the story.

Rumpus: There’s something tragic about Sharon never getting free again. She died in prison. Tarver, your other codefendant, he’s still alive, right? Did you guys ever talk about Sharon not making it?

Barlow: No, Sharon and I weren’t really that close. Tarver and I happened to pull off a robbery and almost got busted. In order to get off the street, we had to go to the nearest person’s house we knew and it just turned out to be Sharon. Sharon, because she was gay, and back then gay people, particularly women, wanted to look tough. So she wanted in on whatever we were doing. Her first robbery. Never made it out.

Rumpus: Tarver, your other accomplice, codefendant, is still a friend of yours, right? Did he also do fifty years?

Barlow: Forty-eight. [Tarver was released before Sam, in 2018, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling that life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.]

Rumpus: I want to take you back, if you would, to that moment when you guys were taken from the county jail and sentenced. You were still not sure of what you were facing. Did all three of you get death or no? Your two codefendants were under age, weren’t they?

Barlow: Well, by the time we went to court they weren’t minors. They turned eighteen a month or so after we were arrested. We didn’t go to court until June of 1969. And that’s when we get convicted of felony murder and we were sentenced to death.

Rumpus: Do you still remember the moment in court when they imposed the death sentence?

Barlow: The judge and I actually argued. He said, “Samuel Barlow, on behalf of the Commonwealth, for crimes against the Commonwealth, I hereby sentence you to death,” and the whole courtroom just erupted. All the people in there just started screaming and crying and hollering. Supporters of all three of us were in the room at the time. I had other sentences, too, and I asked the judge, “How can you give me death plus? What life am I gonna do that in?” So he says, “Well, let me tell you something, young man. You just can’t come to our good city and start killing up our good citizens.” I said, “Well, I haven’t killed anyone.” He said, “You did. You and those other two people. You people can’t…” I said, “Oh, it’s you people now.”

Rumpus: It was a white judge?

Barlow: Yeah, we were going back and forth, so he pounded the gavel, “Get him out of here! Get him out of here before I conk him one with this gavel!”

Rumpus: You were still an angry, defiant young man.

Barlow: Yes, because they had put us on bread and water, strip cell, for the last eight months.

Rumpus: You didn’t feel any remorse at that point.

Barlow: No, none whatsoever.

Rumpus: So that sentence comes down and you’re still thinking, what, that maybe there’s a way out of this? Of course this is before 1972 when the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty.

Barlow: Yes, that was one of the reasons why. They never said it, but we knew that that was coming down the pike, so to speak.

Rumpus: In the late 60s there was a feeling that the US was breaking towards a more merciful system?

Barlow: Yes, eliminating the death penalty.

Rumpus: How do you feel about that?

Barlow: There’s no way one individual can say another individual deserves to die.

Rumpus: After sentencing, you guys get transferred here to Eastern State. Did you come in on a bus with other inmates through the front gate?

Barlow: No, I came in the sheriff’s car. When you first get in, you look at the city because if you’re locked up and you haven’t been out in eight, nine months…

Rumpus: Starved for all that imagery.

Barlow: Then they come to this big gate. They open this gate and it clangs behind you like a big steel drum. And then when you get inside, you’re concerned with how it’s gonna be.

Rumpus: Were you still young enough in a way that, as you said in one of the interviews you’ve done, that you were kind of immune to the fear because you couldn’t see your future? You weren’t thinking past a couple of days.

Barlow: You can’t see consequences.

Rumpus: Tell me more about you guys rolling into Camp Hill just a week prior to the fateful bank robbery.

Barlow: I was a loose cannon. To go visit someone in a prison and have two loaded guns on you. That’s insanity. I had a snub nose .38 in the pocket of a cashmere coat and a nine-shot .22 strapped under my arm.

Rumpus: And a bag of weed.

Barlow: No, an ounce of weed. And we went inside SCI Coal Township to visit three people, and because they didn’t have metal detectors I was able to walk in and walk out with two loaded pistols. But then later on you say to yourself, “Why would I do something like that? Sane people don’t act like that. Sane people don’t even carry pistols unless they’re registered.” So to have an unregistered pistol, to have it loaded and then to walk into a major penitentiary, for what reason? Suppose I got into a fight. What was I going to do, start shooting?

Rumpus: That is just insane. 

Barlow: So you have to get to a point in your life where you say, “I was crazy.” It’s like a Frankenstein. Who and how was I put together, to carry out these acts? You have to break yourself down to square one and build yourself back up.

Rumpus: And here at Eastern State we have the home of the Pennsylvania model, how they thought through solitude and work and more spiritual time that the inmate would reform himself and that somehow you did. I hesitate to say, but in some cases, for some individuals, it does work. They find their way to books. They find their way to self-empowerment. You know, the grand experiment that the state is performing in institutions like this.

Barlow: They have to start when the person is first arrested, and realize that this person is an imperfect individual. And how do we make him perfect or as close to perfect as possible? If they don’t approach it like that, then they never heal the person.

Rumpus: That’s the ideal. But of course they don’t do that, right? What I found, and what I imagine inmates here at Eastern State did, too, to some degree, was that the authorities just don’t have the time or the manpower or the care or the intelligence themselves to do their part.

Barlow: It’s more like they never understood, nor do they understand now, that it’s a communal effort, meaning it takes the officer arresting you, the DA indicting you, the judge convicting you, and the prison holding you. It takes all of that, and they always make the claim that you’ve either harmed someone or someone’s property. So that encompasses your community, the neighborhood you stay in, the city you stay in. But when it comes time to correct the individual, they eliminate that. They forget about all of that.

Rumpus: They forcibly remove the inmate from all of that, which is a mistake.

Barlow: Yes, which is a mistake, I think, because you have to know from day one, what did I do to get here, right? What do I have to do to get out of here? And then, how do I stay out of here once I get out of here? But if you’re faced with a life sentence, which we call death by incarceration, then you’re not even looking to get out and you’re surrounded by a lot of people who don’t even have dreams of getting out.

Rumpus: What does the guy have to live for then? They’ve got nothing to lose. So you could have been one of them. How did you turn the other way?

Barlow: I was born in Pittsburgh, but I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. So me being from a different state and city, I had a different mindset. A lot of the elder people from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia took to me and became my mentors. As a result of that they would put me out front to do a lot of the talking. After a while I became good at it and I liked doing it. I liked speaking to people, especially from a mentoring perspective.

Rumpus: They would choose you to be the guy to go speak to new inmates?

Barlow: Yes, well when you’re dealing with, particularly Philadelphia, you’re dealing with a gang-oriented city. They listen to their own people, so to speak. They don’t hear other people for the most part, unless they have a lot of experience outside of Philadelphia. Then you can talk to them beyond Philadelphia. So the elders said, “Well it would be good for this guy to talk to them because he’s bringing something they can’t anticipate.” They anticipate what their so-called homie or their fellow Philadelphian would say.

Rumpus: But you had a different take. And some of that was the spirituality, some of that was Islam, right?

Barlow: Yes, absolutely.

Rumpus: There were two Pakistani guys who had death sentences when I first went to prison in Seoul, in South Korea. It’s interesting the role that someone like yourself can serve. For the other inmates, guys like me serving short time, a couple of years, five years, even ten compared to someone doing life or facing the death penalty, you become a very helpful presence for the others in a way, I found. Because I used to look at those guys facing death and I could put aside my own problems. I could feel less self-pity, because I knew they had it much worse.

Barlow: In fact, the more drama that a person faces, it makes him saner. When you have a person that has a little bit of time, they tend to act out. They need mentoring. But when a person has drama, life sentence, death sentence, they tend to mature faster. When you look at it in hindsight, it helps you to grow because you get a chance to look out and they don’t get a chance to see you. I didn’t get in one single fight my whole time in prison.

Rumpus: I love that. It gives you a chance to look out at them, but they can’t see you. You can become super observant in prison.

Barlow: You don’t have to say anything. You just observe. That’s what you have to do on death row because you couldn’t participate in population and there were only two of us here in Eastern State. They were preparing to shut it down. [Eastern State closed in 1971, the same year as the Attica uprising in New York, before the era of “nothing works,” before the rise of mass incarceration in the United States.] On the outside looking in. We would be escorted by guards through the halls. It looked like a little city. Guys had their stuff in the halls, in the little alleyways. If it was raining, they’d be standing on those narrow eves smoking. So you got a chance to go past them and you could catch little snippets of conversation.

Rumpus: Was there much violence here back then?

Barlow: There was violence everywhere in the system at the time. There were fights every day. There were stabbings every week.

Rumpus: You said you’ve written a manuscript of your life story. Did you write that in prison?

Barlow: Yes, in the last six years or so. And some notes since I’ve been out.

Rumpus: Did you write about that process of going back and deconstructing the young Sam Barlow, who you were coming up and who those influences were?

Barlow: Yes, I even went back to when I was an orphan. A lot of times orphans feel cheated, mad at the world. But then you get to a point where you say, “Well, wait a minute, I’m here. So that means somebody took care of me. Somebody had to have some sort of love to reach out and make sure I didn’t die as an orphan.” And you begin to look at life differently, and you say, “There are other people in this world. It’s not just composed of me.”

Rumpus: That’s what prison was for me, too, man.

Barlow: I knew exactly when I was ready to leave. In 1976, they had a concert. Sister Sledge came to Western Penitentiary, where I was at the time. I was sitting in a cell with about four individuals and got upset with myself. Why am I sitting here drinking jailhouse wine and smoking weed? I’m doing life here now. They’re not. So the next day when they had this concert everybody in the jail went to the concert but me. I went to the showers and said, “Young man, you have to make a change in your life.”

Rumpus: You still remember that as a marker.

Barlow: I went to self lock-up for four days. No one knew where I was. When I came out, I accepted Islam. When you look at a life sentence, you say to yourself, “They mean for me to die in this place. So if I never get to go, what can I learn? What can I be? How can I transform myself?” One thing I did, I became an imam, and I wanted to talk to other people, to mentor them.

Rumpus: I’m sure you were a positive presence. That’s something the governor and the clemency board obviously took into consideration.

Barlow: I shook even more guards’ hands than prisoners when I was leaving.

Rumpus: You said you learned that after not even ten years in, those hard lessons. Why don’t most inmates seem to get that lesson? We always talk about recidivism rates, and that the reason for warehousing is that most lawbreakers are just gonna keep doing it. So what was it about you that made you able to change positively?

Barlow: You have to have an epiphanous moment. Why me? That’s your first thought. Then you look in the mirror and the mirror tells you, Why not you? Who said that you’re just gonna live a happy life with a picket fence and four children and a wife? Who says that? You might stay in jail and get out two days before you die. You just can’t say, “This has been taken from me.” No, nothing’s been taken from you. What’s been given to you?

Rumpus: Nothing was guaranteed.

Barlow: No one in the outside world has time to sit and read and study and travel the world through literature like people inside.

Rumpus: I was imagining you must have read a ton in prison.

Barlow: I can’t remember most of the books I read. So many.

Rumpus: You said your father and stepfather were illiterate. How about you at eighteen? Had you gone to high school?

Barlow: I dropped out in the ninth grade, but I could read and write, absolutely. You know, when I was in the ninth grade, I was on the honor roll. But when I went to live with my mother, an unadmitted alcoholic, that was a whole new urban reality. I went back to Pittsburgh when I was thirteen and that changed my whole life. Pittsburgh was a fast town. We went to county fairs in Dayton. In Pittsburgh they smoke weed at thirteen. So that’s a whole new life.

Rumpus: So, mid 70s, there’s the young Sam and you have that epiphany, as you call it. Were you reading a lot of stuff at that time maybe that was helping you get into that inner mindset?

Barlow: I was reading a lot of black history. George Jackson, all of that, the whole gamut.

Rumpus: Iceberg Slim?

Barlow: I started off with Iceberg Slim. But then Warith Deen Mohammed, who was the imam of the Nation of Islam and then transitioned to the World Community, his first statement was, “Man means mind,” and I was intrigued by that. Man means mind. Even though I was still ready for the streets, in my mind, I knew I was an incomplete individual. There were other things that I didn’t know that I needed to know.

Rumpus: Technical stuff, or you mean more character stuff?

Barlow: More character stuff. You have to know the principles. What are the principles of repentance? You have to stop what you’re doing. You have to make the commitment not to do it again. You have to regret what you’ve done. You have to return the rights to the people, which means, what rights did you take from the people? Were they afraid of you because you were a robber, because you were a murderer? The society should feel safe from you, right? So until they feel safe from you, you’re still taking from them. 

Rumpus: That’s powerful, man, because you’re even seeing the invisible cost of crime, that it engenders fear in the community. And that fear is something you are causing. You’re responsible for that invisible harm.

Barlow: You’re part of an urban terrorist network, whether you want to believe it or not. That’s exactly what you are. Most of us grow up with transient people living in our neighborhoods because we don’t live in residential areas. There are bars on every corner, churches on every other corner, trash in the streets, gunshots every night, but that does not mean or give you the right to choose whatever you want to do. 

Rumpus: You’re still on the hook for that choice you make.

Barlow: Yes.

Rumpus: You’ve dealt with a lot of these young gangbangers, right? You saw them up in Coal Township. And do you say those things to them? You’re giving them some tough love. How do they react to that?

Barlow: Most of them will not listen until they need you. So you have to be available when they need you. You might be working in the library as a law clerk and normally this person in the yard wouldn’t pay you any mind, saying, “I ain’t trying to hear that.” But the minute he gets something in the mail from the lawyer or the courts that he doesn’t understand and he needs you, that’s your teaching moment.

Rumpus: That’s your moment. And do you find you take that moment to not only help them with the legal brief but maybe to give them some guidance?

Barlow: Yes, to help him find what his characteristics are, so he can mold himself. You can’t make him drink, but you can give him something.

Rumpus: What was it like when you knew you were getting out?

Barlow: They came to the prison just before I got out and they shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, they recommended you for commutation.” And I shook their hand and I didn’t smile. They said, “You should be overjoyed.” I said, “I’m not out yet.”

Rumpus: Yeah, I’ll believe it when I can look up at the sky, feel the sun on my face, and have no door locked in front of me.

Barlow: Yes. It was surreal, too. You even wake up sometimes at night from dreams of being back in the penitentiary.

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Photo credits: Featured photograph of Samuel Barlow, photograph of Barlow and Thomas in cell, and photograph of Eastern State Penitentiary by Cullen Thomas. Photograph of arrest provided with permission courtesy of The Patriot News File. Photograph of Eastern State radial plan provided with permission courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary. Photograph of book manuscript by Samuel Barlow.

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Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →