Conversations with a Convict


Irvin Moore standing to the right of his support dog, Fred. “Learn who you are as a human being,” said Moore while visiting State High. “Learn about your role and your responsibility as a human being. Not as a Black man, not as a white man, not as a Hispanic or an Asian person, but as a person; a member of the human family, which we all know. Every one of us here is related to each other.” Photo by Russell Frank.

Elisa Edgar, Managing Editor

53 years ago, Irvin Moore was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. He was 21 at the time. To put it in perspective, Moore was sentenced in 1969, before Woodstock or the Big Mac. He watched the moon landing from his jail cell. During his years of imprisonment he has experienced many of the changes that have occurred within our criminal justice system, particularly with regard to mass incarceration. This year, he was welcomed as a guest speaker at State High for an audience of 100 students to share his experiences. Joined by senior Owen Perry, along with Moore’s support dog, Fred, the group spent over an hour offering State High students a perspective far beyond their own lives. 

Moore’s first encounters with the criminal justice system traces back to his childhood, one that was built around the community he grew up in. 

“I come from a totally different era,” Moore began to explain. “All of you guys have heard of the 60s, the 1960s. You’ve seen it on television, movies, in songs, and it was a very, very, unique period. It was a time of tremendous change.” 

Change, whether in terms of mindsets of the 40’s and 50’s, architecture, culture, music, attitudes, or access to information, defined the 60’s. The community Moore was raised in, however, was still a very segregated one. 

“As a child, what I knew about my people was tilted. It was based on standards of the time that called for segregation and racial disparities,” said Moore. “I knew that my family, my people, came from Africa. And I knew that we had been enslaved. That’s it. That’s it. Everything else, we got from television. Everything else was myth, lies, and it didn’t make use feel too good about us as a race of people. Again, I say this was the 60s, so there were things happening. And what was happening is that we had some young brothers like yourself, some young men and sisters like yourself, going to university. They were gaining knowledge, and they came back to our community and would come and talk to us.”

At 13, Moore had a run in with a police officer. In an extremely unusual occasion, he was given $20 by his family, a large amount of money for the 60’s and for a 13 year old. He collected his friends together, filled with excitement, and they began to walk to the store to spend the cash in his pocket. He still remembers the miraculousness of that $20. Along the way, they were stopped by a few police officers, questioning where they were going and what they were doing. The officers began shaking them down, patting their clothes and turning them to face away from them. One officer walked up to him, saying, “turn around. What’s that?”. Moore heard him mumbling, felt him push something into his pocket, and then was told to get out of the area. He took about two steps before pulling out his wallet and seeing that his money was gone. 

“I asked to get my money back and he said some strangely offensive words. I didn’t know how to respond. And from that point on, I’m not saying that my life took a turn, but it affected me, you know? It impacted my outlook on what I thought the world was,” he said. 

In Pennsylvania, unlike 40 other states in the country, a person serving a life sentence serves until they die. Often, in movies or television, judges will declare, “I sentence you to life without parole.” They don’t have to say that in Pennsylvania; there is no parole. There has never been parole for life sentences. 

“It’s something that we, as life sentence prisoners, have been fighting for,” said Moore. “There are people in there who have made a mistake. There are people in there who I owe my life to. There are people in there who helped me navigate my way through that. There are people in there who made me read books. There are people in there who kept me out of trouble, who guided me when I lost my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, my older brother.”

Moore describes restorative justice as a philosophy of how we as a society respond to social problems in this country. Our solution, as of now, is to lock people up. The United States is the world’s largest prison. There are 2.4 million people in jail in the US, a 500% increase over the past 40 years. Three times as many are under some sort of legal supervision. One fourth of the world’s prison population is right here. 

Pentienance is defined as the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong; repentance. Religiously, it is asking God for forgiveness. The word penitentiary derives from pentiencne. In Christianity, as well as other religions, monks would sleep in small rooms called cells. They would isolate themselves from the world, as a demonstration of loyalty to God and guilt for their sins. Prisons, naturally, were shaped off this model.

Solitary confinement, when forced on someone instead of being chosen for themselves, drives people crazy. If prisoners didn’t have a visitor coming regularly, they might not even know who the president was. Inhumane conditions drove people to desperation for any form of escape. The next step in the evolution of prisons was to broker a deal; “We’ll let you go out, if you work.” Through this, slavery became not only legal, but acceptable in society. 

“Inherently, I believe in the goodness of man. But I have seen the other side. I have seen the other side,” said Moore. 

For part of the last five years of his life in prison, Moore fondly recalls being in a canine handler’s program, which means he and his fellow prisoners were trained to train dogs as service animals. 

“I was very good at it, and I loved the program because it was the first time I got to put my hands on a dog and pet a dog in about 47 years,” said Moore. 

He loved dogs, but the dogs that he would see were difficult to get close to due to their aggression or behavioral problems. Many of them had been abused and mistreated for years on end. While part of the program, Moore trained about 20 dogs to be service dogs: emotional service dogs, psychological service dogs, and physical service dogs. 

“If a person needed a dog because they were debilitated in some sort of way because of some sort of impediment, or even just psychologically needed a dog for comfort, we trained those dogs..until the pandemic hit,” he said.

Just like in the outside world, life stopped inside of prisons just the same. No one was allowed inside, so the people who were supposed to train prisoners in dog handling could no longer come in. The last dog that Moore was training, Fred, was luckily the last one to remain. The warden told Moore that they were going to adopt Fred, so that he could stay with him and he would be able to take him around the prison until the pandemic was over. 

“And that’s what I did,” said Moore. “I kept him. And I was the only one who had a dog in the house. I took Fred to every block where the prisoners lived, you could see the impacts that fryer had on the lives of those folks there. Men have been socialized not to cry, that showing emotion is not a sign of weakness, but we are emotional creatures. We all trained rescue dogs, and Fred was no different, coming from horrible situations. I’m talking about neglected, abused, misused. And all he wanted was love. You hear the phrase, you get unconditional love from a dog, you know what that means? You don’t have to do anything for him and he’ll love you. Unconditional love…he’ll love you regardless.”

In jail, his prison cell was extremely small. Even smaller was the size of beds provided; so small in fact, that he recalls being unable to turn on his side at night without falling off. After taking Fred into his care, he pulled his tiny mattress to the ground and slept with Fred on the floor of his cell night after night, so that his dog would have a comfortable place to rest. 

“Being there, in that place..I would not wish that on any human being. But I’m not angry. I’m not mad. I don’t look back on my life with regret,” he said. “I wake up every day and I say, ‘Lord, thank you so much for another day. Lord, thank you for this opportunity to be alive.’”

In 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that life without possibility of parole was unconstitutional for minors. This shifted the tides for Moore, so that in March of 2021, he had his sentence commuted. 

“I’m not special, that’s not why I’m out. I know thousands of people just like me locked away,” said Moore.

Since release, Moore has moved into an apartment off of University Drive, begun working as a Community Liaison with the Restorative Justice Initiative at Penn State, and was officially granted parole on March 26, 2022. He has engaged in many speaking events at the Penn State campus, where he shared his knowledge regarding the criminal justice system. He credits these achievements to the refusal to stay stagnant. 

Moore originally planned to join World in Conversation, a different organization at Penn State headed by Dr. Laurie Mulvey. 

“Dr. Laurie is my neighbor and close family friend who has advocated for Irvin’s commutation for nearly 20 years,” said senior Owen Perry. “On Irvin’s first day in State College, Dr. Laurie (who is often referred to as The Professor by Irvin) asked me to help move him in. This was the first time we met. Since then, we’ve been friends. Our favorite activities include going thrifting at Uptown Cheapskate and Goodwill, and getting Black and White shakes from McDonalds.”

This friendship between Perry and Moore is one of many factors that Moore credits to his success after prison. He emphasizes repeatedly the importance of having people to lean on in life. After coming out of a 53 year old cage, 53 years of isolation and abuse, many would be overwhelmed by the adjustment back into reality. Moore, however, claims he was never overwhelmed, even once. Of course, there were challenges, as there always are in life. These challenges were nothing he couldn’t handle, especially with supporters he could turn to. 

“I don’t have a problem asking the people in my life for help,” said Moore. “It was a time when I wouldn’t do that, and I would stand on my pride, and say, ‘no, I got it’. I would make mistakes. People in my life…angels, I call them.”

Moore’s ability to come out from the other side of decades in jail filled with optimism is notable. He wakes up every day, intensely grateful for the life was given, regardless of the circumstances he experienced. Prison, for him, was a place filled with pain. 

“Full of sorrow, full of misery, full of anger. Full of harshness, full of brutality. And I stand before you today as a person who loves everyone,” he said. “In you, I see myself. I see the children that I’ve never had. I see my brothers, my sisters, my nieces, my nephews. In you, crazy enough, I see my ancestors. I come to you with a message that life is beautiful. Being alive is a wonderful thing. You have a wonderful advantage; you’re young. When I was that age, what caused my future to change was that I didn’t realize that I had control over life. Some of you sitting here today don’t realize that you have control over your life. Once you do realize it, you start taking charge, and you start making the right kinds of decisions.”

Before leaving State High, Irvin Moore left students with a declaration of faith. Faith in the youth, and faith in the future. Although he emphasizes the wisdom of elders, and the importance of listening to them, action cannot end there. He believes that this generation is capable of doing what his generation couldn’t, and what the ones before him refused to do.