Man Who Got Life for Dealing Meth to Pay His Child's Medical Bills Had Sentence Commuted by Obama, Only to Be Controlled by a Rigid Christian Halfway House
Editor's note: President Obama has extended clemency to an unparalleled number of people convicted of nonviolent drug-law violations, a program unlikely to be continued by a President Clinton or Trump. AlterNet and The Influence have partnered on a series profiling people impacted by the program, as time runs out for inmates hoping to get their sentences commuted.
It didn’t take long after Dicky Joe Jackson’s son, Cole, got sick, for the health insurance company to find a way to avoid covering his treatments.
"As soon as the bills for the cancer tests started rolling in, the insurance company began looking for ways to get out of paying them,” Cole's father, Dicky Joe Jackson, wrote. His family, which was not made of money in the first place—Jackson drove a truck for a living—soon faced the kind of health insurance nightmare that would break far bigger bank accounts.
In 1989, when Cole was two, doctors told the Jackson family that the only way to save his life was a bone marrow transplant. The health insurance company was as understanding about this as you’d expect.
They “upped our monthly premium without notifying us,” Jackson explains. “The automatic draft didn’t clear the bank because we were budgeted tight, so they dropped us.”
Through some ingenious fundraising, the family got part of the money together and Cole got the transplant from his 11-year-old sister April, but it didn't fully heal him, and they continued racking up medical expenses. By then, the family owed $200,000 in medical bills, Jackson says.
Then Jackson’s father, who’d also worked as a trucker, died. This left Jackson solely responsible for supporting his mother and the rest of his family, and for paying for his son's life-saving treatments.
Given that he was not a particularly desirable candidate for a bank loan, the only way Jackson could figure out how to do that was to transport methamphetamine on his truck route. Jackson had occasionally used meth to stay awake on long drives. A meth dealer he knew asked him to carry the drug in his truck.
Then Jackson sold some meth to an undercover cop. He was arrested in 1995. In part because the supplier testified against him, claiming he was the ringleader, the supplier got 10 years. Dicky Joe Jackson got life without parole.
“I had given up,” his daughter April tells me over the phone.
When she first heard about President Obama’s clemency initiative, her hopes surged. Then they quickly fell, after she realized the sheer number of nonviolent drug prisoners hoping to have their sentences commuted. “So many thousands of people that deserve this just as much as we do—it’s like winning the lottery. Any time more were announced, I lost just a little bit of hope. I thought, Here we are, nearing the end of Obama’s term. I have no faith that it’ll continue."
“We were losing hope,” April says. “And when I got that call, words just can’t describe … I was in disbelief at first. It was very surreal. Like a dream. I felt a gratitude that can’t be expressed with words.”
“I WANT TO DO ALL I CAN FOR THOSE STILL IN SO IM GONNA GET WITH YOU WHEN I GET HOME. THEYVE APPROVED ME FOR HOME CONFINEMENT SO ILL BE HOME IN A WK OR SO,” Jackson typed in an email to an advocacy group on August 3, the day he received clemency.
Jackson walked out of prison on September 1. But as with most stories involving America’s justice system, his and his family’s trials are far from over. Jackson is technically under the purview of the Bureau of Prisons until December 1, when his sentence officially ends, after which he’ll be on probation for five years.
Even though the family had been told he was "approved for home confinement," April says, Jackson was instead diverted to a halfway house run by Volunteers of America. Founded in 1896, the organization defines its mission as, “a church without walls that answers God’s call to transform our communities through a ministry of service that demonstrates to all people that they are beloved.”
That has not been Jackson's experience so far. "These people here... you know, we were under the understanding that they're trying to help you reintegrate into society. But they act like the Gestapo, my gosh," he says. "They're constantly on your neck, won't give you a minute's freedom."
Halfway houses, meant to serve as re-entry points for prisoners, are chosen by the Bureau of Prisons, according to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "When deciding whether to send someone to a halfway house and for how long, the BOP will look at the prisoner’s disciplinary record and whether the prisoner has refused to participate in prison programs and reentry preparation programs,” they write. The BOP did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
"The original intent of the halfway house was to help prisoners transition from prison life into society,” says Amy Povah, founder of Can-Do: Justice Through Clemency. “But over the years some staff have adopted a 'gotcha' bully mentality that creates unnecessary burdens and oppression."
The Volunteers of America website says, “We excel at meeting immediate needs, but are able to transform lives through our belief in, and reliance on, grace.” The organization didn't reply to a request for comment.
The Volunteers of America website.
Here’s how Volunteers of America is helping Dicky Joe Jackson reach his full potential. Though the 58-year-old is blind in one eye—thanks to a botched prison surgery—and is on multiple meds, the work specialist at the halfway house demanded he get a job. As he was shuffled between his family home and the halfway house, where he was sleeping until he could be approved for "home confinement," the halfway house hounded him about work.
"Get a job, get a job, get a job," Jackson says they told him. "They force you to go out get one of those minimum-wage jobs, then they hassle your employer so they don't want you around there."April wanted her dad to see a doctor for a full medical checkup, but the halfway house made it clear that a job was the priority. If he didn't find work, it would count as a “shot” against him—a strike of sorts, the accumulation of which would send him back to prison.
"I went 21 years in prison without a single incident report. Now, in two weeks, I've got two shots," Jackson says. He got one because one day April couldn't drive him to the halfway house, so he drove himself, thinking that was fine because he has a legal driver's license. It wasn't—he was written up for driving without being approved for driving.
Jackson got a job, driving a truck moving sand at a gravel site. Then he was informed that he was not actually eligible to get a job until the paperwork was finalized.
"Unfortunately, they're not having it. They tell him that he can't start a job until they approve the job," April says, and until they approved his paperwork. But he could get job training until then.
So he did that, starting his non-job job at the gravel pit. He had finally been moved to home confinement on September 15, but to ensure all was on the up and up, his case worker at the halfway house required he go there in person to check in every Wednesday and Friday. He did that.
Every day before he left for work he had to call the halfway house. He had to call them when he arrived at his job, when he left his job, and again when he got home from work. And to make sure his family was not up to anything untoward, the halfway house also called them at all hours of the day and night, from 10pm to 3:20am, April says. "'Just wanted to make sure you’re home.’ Where would we be at 3:20 in the morning?”
Jackson says he doesn't mind that much, but fails to see the point.
Dicky Joe Jackson's log-in sheet.
Still, it wasn't enough. Last week, he called in before his training, April says. A Volunteers of America staffer called him at work, telling him he was supposed to be at home—even though a different staffer had approved the training.
The staffer on the phone said she couldn't get in touch with the staffer who approved the training, and demanded that Jackson stop work and report to the halfway house in an hour and a half, even though he was an hour away. April rushed to pick him up and drive him.
He went back to work, but had to go back to the halfway house after work. But he couldn't go to work the next day, because they hadn't signed his paperwork. Finally, all the paperwork was squared away and he could officially start work.
He checked in before work. Then another staffer called April at the house, demanding to know where he was.
"I tell her he's at work. She says no, he's supposed to be at home," April says. "I let her know that is incorrect. Check the pass. She says she can't get in touch with him at work. She calls his work again and she calls me back. She says that since she can't reach him, she's put him on escape status. I tell her I'll go down there myself. I go to his work and have him call in. She tells him it's too late; she's put him on escape status and he's to report down there in the next 1.5 hours or she's calling the marshal."
Even though his employer verified that Jackson was at work, she demanded to speak with him. But Jackson didn't get the call, he says, because he was too far away in the gravel pits to be flagged by the front office.
So Jackson had to go back to live at the halfway house, which he says is 20 people a room, in bunk beds, making it noisy and impossible to sleep.
His son Cole is 28 now. He has to inject himself four times a day to keep the immunological disease that has threatened his life since birth at bay. It’s not easy for him to leave the house.
“My brother is incredibly ill,” says April. “It’s a really big deal for him to have Dad at home. Never had a chance to do that his whole life. We don’t know how long he’s got, so it’s frustrating, to say the least.”
Dicky Joe Jackson's story illustrates the extreme difficulties faced by large numbers of released prisoners.
Imagine it: You’ve gone through the trauma of decades in prison. You’re released into a world you don’t recognize, your young children grown. You are not likely to be richer than you were when you entered prison. So it’s hardly surprising many people end up back there. According to the Bureau of Justice, inmates released from state prison have a 76.6 percent five-year recidivism rate.
"I've come out to a different place. It's kind of scary. I know I done wrong, but I feel like I paid my debt," Jackson says. "It's real different for me. The world has just exploded with tech. When I went to to prison, the internet has just opened up. I can't even operate a telephone. I don't even know how to text or nothing."
He wishes the halfway house would give people a bit more leeway to re-adjust to this alien world. "These people expect you to get all this, understand all this, in just a couple of days."
Jackson insists he's not a "whiner" and thinks people should pay their debt to society, but believes people are serving sentences that are "way too much" for nonviolent crimes. "Then, when you get out, it's not over. You have to deal with the halfway house, no one wants to rent you an apartment, no one wants to give you a job. It's a black flag for the rest of your life."
Jackson says President Obama is the first president in his lifetime interested in more than "lining his own pockets." But he worries that the difficulties faced by newly released inmates will sabotage Obama's clemency initiative. He thinks there are people in the criminal justice system who don't want the program to succeed, because then, "they'll be out of a job."
These are the realities behind the positive clemency headlines.
“The ones that are trying to do right, doing good, and you’re harassed every step of the way,” April says. “Hell, no wonder we have recidivism rates the way you do—we make it impossible.”
Dicky Joe Jackson with his family.