Image from Alyse Emdur, Prison Landscapes, 176 pages, published by Four Corners Books

s I sit in my car outside the medium-security federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas, I clean my fingers.

“Before you get here stop and buy you some of those hand wipes with bleach and the last thing you do before you walk in is wipe your hands real good,” inmate Dicky Joe Jackson had e-mailed me. “They use an ion spectrometer and nearly all money you touch out there has some trace of drugs on it, and it’s their ‘catch all’ device to deny you entry.”

Contact with drugs from a used twenty is just one challenge facing me. Citing “safety and security concerns,” prison administrators denied my request to interview Jackson, who insists I call him Joe. Although I am permitted to see him as a regular visitor, I cannot bring a pen, notepad, or recorder. After we meet I will go to my car and write down as much as I remember of our conversation. Not ideal for a reporter, certainly, but I have a backup plan. Before my visit Jackson agreed to answer questions through the mail. I’ve already received several long and detailed letters from him describing his life and what led him to prison.

I throw the hand wipes onto the passenger seat, get out of my car, and squint against the steady gray drizzle this January morning. Because I can’t take notes, the main purpose of my visit will be to put a face to Dicky Joe Jackson, a name I had come across a few weeks earlier in an ACLU report, “A Living Death.” The report summarized dozens of cases of the more than 3,200 men and women, including Jackson, serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses.

In 1996, a federal court in Fort Worth found Jackson guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of an unregistered firearm.

Jackson, from the rural North Texas town of Boyd, needed thousands of dollars to pay for his critically ill son’s monthly medical expenses. Transporting meth seemed the only way to do it. He thought he had known all the risks involved but he hadn’t. He didn’t know he’d get busted. He didn’t know he would stand in the courtroom of a judge who would show him no mercy. He didn’t know the man who supplied the meth, a man Jackson had known for much of his life and considered a friend, would turn on him. And he didn’t know that his wife would be left without a husband and his children without a father.

“I’m not making no excuses for what I’ve done,” Jackson told the judge at his sentencing hearing. “But when my son got sick, we tried every government agency there is to come up with the money, and nobody wanted to help us. And I don’t expect you to help us now, neither.”

The judge sentenced Jackson to life. Today his only hope is a recently announced Department of Justice program that is recommending the release of some nonviolent drug offenders. But not every nonviolent offender will be released, and specific criteria for eligibility haven’t yet been announced.

Among those advocating for Jackson’s release is the man who prosecuted him, former Assistant US Attorney Michael Snipes. Snipes told me that nothing about his case indicated he had done or would commit a violent act.

“[Jackson] potentially did this because he didn’t know of any other way to take care of his kid,” Snipes said. “As a prosecutor, I can say, ‘Life, life, life,’ but we’re supposed to seek justice.”

* * *

December 26, 2013

So, to answer your question, as far as where did I grow up, from birth till nine, I guess on the farm in Keeter [near Boyd]. From nine to seventeen we lived in Bridgeport and then moved back to the farm. But for real, I grew up in the cab of that Peterbilt [truck], all over the US & Canada. As for favorite childhood memories, all on the farm before Dad got remarried & every visit to my Granny’s house. And every trip I made with my Dad. As for values, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you but always remember, blood is thicker than water.

* * *

Sue Barrow sits in a booth at the back of a convenience store and restaurant off Highway 114 outside Boyd, about a ten-minute drive from the Jackson home. Seventy-five years old, worry lacing her soft country speaking voice, she folds her small hands on the table and glances around, hoping the server doesn’t object that she won’t be ordering food. She’d just rather talk about her son, Joe Jackson. He was just two years old when she left him with his father, Billy Allen Jackson, a truck driver. It was an I’m-pregnant-let’s-get-married sort of thing. She was nineteen, Billy Allen not much older. Stupid kids, she says. It didn’t work out. Barrow then married an alcoholic who put a gun to the infant Joe’s head, so Barrow gave him to Billy Allen to raise.

Had Joe’s youngest, Cole, been born healthy, Joe would never have done what he did, Barrow says. Cole got sick and then Billy Allen died of a heart attack and Joe had to look after his stepmother, too. He didn’t know what he was going to do or where he would find the money.

“Look around,” she says. “Nobody around here has a lot of money. They all just make a living.”

A man can borrow only so much and if you don’t have collateral, what bank is going to loan to you?

Barrow’s eyes tear up. She and every member of the family damn near begged for money to pay Cole’s hospital bills. No one in their family had the kind of money the hospital was talking about. No, Joe didn’t go to a bank. A man can borrow only so much and if you don’t have collateral, what bank is going to loan to you?

Barrow shakes her head. She told Joe she knew how he was raising money for Cole. There was just too much coming in not to know.

“I can see what you’re all fooling with and that’s trouble,” she told him. “I’m not some big ol’ dummy. There’s nothing worth your life.”

But Joe wouldn’t listen. He told her if he could save Cole’s life, he’d gladly risk his.

* * *

When I leave the prison three hours later, I walk to my car at a fast clip just short of running. I keep repeating in my head the conversation I had with Jackson and when I reach my car, I begin to write. Some of what he told me I knew from speaking with his family before my visit.

Jackson wore wire-rimmed glasses, a white jumpsuit, and an easy smile. He had graying hair, a horseshoe-shaped mustache that framed his mouth, and a goatee. His voice had a Southern lilt to it. A stocky man, he had the rolling walk of a sailor. He shook my hand and embraced me. We sat across from one another in a large room that reminded me of a school cafeteria. Shiny white tile floor, white and gray walls, and bright lights. Four other inmates sat across from their visitors. Sometimes, an inmate and their visitor would get up and stand in front of a painting of the Empire State Building and pose for photographs. Guards watched us talk, and in low voices we carved out our own space although we sat shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, and I asked my questions.

Jackson told me he dropped out of high school at seventeen and began driving trucks and working alongside his father. He was twenty-seven when he bought his own eighteen-wheeler.

I recalled one of his letters. In it, he wrote that trucking had been his destiny. He’d been in and under trucks since grade school. He pulled his first transmission at thirteen. By the time he turned twenty, he knew more about trucks than some people twice his age.

A guard interrupted us and told Jackson and the other prisoners to stand against a wall for a head count. The guard looked at them, checked a clipboard, looked at them again, and then told them to return to their seats, and Jackson and I resumed talking.

Jackson married his wife Yvonne in 1979 and they had three children, April, Jon, and Cole. Cole was born in 1990 with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, a rare and potentially life-threatening immunodeficiency disorder characterized by a reduced ability to form blood clots. It almost always affects boys. Treatments include bone marrow transplantation, transfusions of red blood cells, and the use of antibiotics.

About the same time, the Jacksons lost their health insurance when an automatic deduction of the monthly fee did not clear the family’s bank account. The Jacksons sued but the case dragged on for years.

Jackson, who used small amounts of meth to stay awake when he drove across the country, said his supplier approached him about transporting the drug. The supplier said that if Jackson agreed to take him to California, pick up a load of meth, and carry it into Texas, he would pay Jackson one thousand dollars for every pound he carried. A typical haul would be about $5,000 to $11,000 worth of meth. The money would pay Cole’s medical expenses, and Jackson agreed.

* * *

Today, more than two decades later, Cole is a tall, lean 23-year-old. He takes quite a few pills to boost his immune system. If he gets sick, it’s not simple. A cold can last weeks and there’s always the worry it could develop into something worse. He is alive and mostly well.

He has watched himself in family videos with his father. He doesn’t know if he remembers those moments or thinks he does because he has seen the videos so many times.

He learned about his father from stories he overheard. It was like listening to stories about a dead person.

As a child, Cole never asked about his father. He didn’t want to upset his mother. She was stressed enough struggling to support the family. They didn’t do without, but they ate a lot of wieners, red beans, and potatoes. His mother didn’t need him bothering her with questions. He learned about his father from stories he overheard. How his dad used to wrestle with April when she was little and call her “Bean” because she liked green beans. How Jon rode with him in his truck. It was like listening to stories about a dead person.

Cole understood from an early age that his father did what he did for him. One time, when Cole was in Sunday school, the teacher read a piece of Scripture that went something like this: the greatest deed a man can do is to give his life for his family.

“That’s my dad,” Cole says. “He gave the ultimate.”

From as far back as he can remember, Cole has carried a burden of guilt.

* * *

December 30, 2013

One day me & Dickie (that’s my friend’s name too, Dickie Spencer, and don’t laugh, not everyone in Boyd is named Dickie, just me and him and his is “ie” instead of “y”) are sitting in the office and Yvonne pulls in to get gas…. So, I ask Dickie, who is that sweetheart there?

* * *

Yvonne Jackson no longer visits her husband. Ex-husband. They divorced, and she has not seen him since about 2001, but she does not think of him as her ex. Not yet, anyway, despite the passage of years. The divorce was his idea, Yvonne says. He wanted her to get on with her life. She has dated little. She doesn’t know why, really. She just feels it’s wrong that Joe’s in there and she’s out here. The divorce is not something she wants to remember. Several times she didn’t show up at court. Then she told herself, “Get this divorce done.” She thought it would be easier for him so he wouldn’t feel obligated to take care of her. She visited him after the divorce but it was too hard to see him. She figured it was better for both of them if she didn’t go back.

They talk on the phone at least once a week, Sundays usually. “Get remarried yet?” he asks her. “Oh, shut up,” she says. He asks about the kids and what they’re doing. When they were younger, he always knew about their report cards. If they got in trouble at school or at home, he knew that, too. “When Dad calls, I’m going to tell him about what you did,” Yvonne would say.

She grew up in Austin and moved to Boyd when she was in the eighth grade. Little bitty town then. Still is, though it has a Sonic now. That’s new. She didn’t think she would stay and then she met Joe. She was seventeen and saw him working in a gas station. He seemed nice. Quiet, shy, and calm. She let the air out of her tire and got him to fill it.

She returned later that week.

“Hey, dude,” she said. “I’m skipping school. Want to skip with me?”

“I can’t,” Joe said. “I’m working. But after work I’ll take you to a movie.”

He had to get up early the next morning to help his father with a truck so he and Yvonne ate at a McDonald’s instead.

When Yvonne graduated from high school they married. Joe saved his money, bought her a ring. Got on one knee and proposed, the whole bit. He passed out when a nurse drew his blood for the marriage license. Joe, Yvonne learned, was afraid of needles.

They started their married life in a trailer home. Joe drove trucks, Yvonne worked at Burger Hut. In 1988 an undercover informant posing as a trucker at a Florida truck stop asked Joe if he had some speed. Joe gave him a pill. He was charged and convicted of possession of one-half gram of methamphetamine. He was given probation.

The Florida bust did not surprise Yvonne. She knew a lot of truckers took speed to stay awake. When someone says, “We need a load in California,” and you’re not getting enough hours to make a living, you do what you have to do to stay awake and haul your load.

One month, when Joe and Yvonne borrowed money for two weeks to pay for diapers, Joe told her, “We’ll never do this again. And you know what? We’re going to have a house. We need a house. I grew up in a trailer. My kids won’t.”

Soon after, Yvonne said, they built a log cabin on ten acres. Joe earned just $20,000 a year. How could they afford a house and land, Yvonne wondered, but she didn’t ask questions. Joe brought the check home like everybody else.

The cabin had almost been completed when police arrested Joe in Tylertown, Mississippi, in December 1989 for carrying more than a kilogram of marijuana in his truck. He called Yvonne and said, “I’ve got bad news.” She understood then where the money for the cabin had come from. He was sentenced to twelve months.

“I think Joe never felt good enough,” Yvonne told me. “My mother didn’t like him. ‘He’s a truck driver,’ she’d say. Maybe he thought if he gave us all this stuff, did all these things for us, we’d love him. He never thought he was giving us enough.”

While Joe was locked up, Yvonne gave birth to Cole.

* * *

January 5, 2014

While I was down there [in the Tylertown jail], Cole was born and I knew God was sending me a message—all that illegal money you made was dust in the wind. So, when we found out he needed the [bone marrow] transplant, our insurance skipped, it was gonna cost $250,000 and we needed half to get him admitted [to the hospital], and the fact we only had 2 years to do this in order to save him, we still kept our cools & put our trust in God instead of [me] Joe. But the problem was, I’d done found out I more or less had the key to Pandora’s box if you will. I had a truck & knew if nothing else worked, I’d haul something illegal & get the money. That thought always riding there in my pea-sized brain corrupted my faith or it was just weak anyway, I don’t know, probably both.

* * *

Joe’s arrest for marijuana had surprised his stepmother, Juanita Jackson. Then again, because she was a trucker too and worked almost every day, she didn’t see him all that often and had no idea what he might be up to. Joe didn’t talk to her about a whole lot of stuff.

Juanita had married Joe’s father, Billy Allen Jackson, when Joe was three. Joe was one of those boys who didn’t need to work hard to keep his grades up. He could draw, too. Trucks mostly. Trucks were his life, just as they were for his father. Juanita knew Billy took speed to stay awake driving. Not often. He didn’t usually have to drive but eight hours on any given job.

One morning, Juanita remembers, Yvonne drove to her house with Cole just weeks old. He had red spots all over him. Juanita had had rashes growing up but she’d never seen anything like this.

Neither had Yvonne. She asked a friend, “What’s this on Cole? Heat rash?” And, like Juanita, her friend said, “I don’t think so.” Yvonne called Cole’s pediatrician in Fort Worth. “Something’s wrong with Cole,” she told a nurse. “I need to bring him in.”

Cole’s doctor referred him to a hospital for a blood test. When the results came in, a nurse told Yvonne that Cole’s platelet count was very low. Platelets help the body clot blood.

“Call your family,” the nurse said. “Cole is really sick.”

Yvonne telephoned her mother and Billy Allen and Juanita.

“Something’s wrong with the baby,” she said.

When Joe finished his sentence in December 1990, Yvonne picked him up and brought Cole with her. Joe got in the truck and Yvonne started crying.

“The baby’s real sick, Joe,” she said.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you had to stay here.”

“What if he’d died?”

“Well, he’s been going to the hospital.”

In 1991, the Jacksons sold everything they didn’t need—trailers, trucks, tools—to pay for Cole’s bone marrow transplant. They arranged fundraisers and asked a Sunday school teacher to supervise the effort.

Yvonne and Joe wrote to everyone they could think of for items to auction. They set up garage sales and sent letters to the Dallas Cowboys asking for donations. Different vendors arranged events for Cole. Bowl for Cole. Bake sale for Cole. Rodeo for Cole. Posters for fundraisers with a photograph of Cole plastered telephone poles and windows of local businesses.

The family raised $50,000 in twelve months. A Chicago nonprofit matched the amount and the hospital agreed to perform the transplant, but the family was still obligated to pay the difference of about $150,000.

The bone marrow of eleven-year-old April was a perfect match for Cole.

“You’ll be saving Cole’s life,” her parents told her. “It’s important you do this.”

April was scared but moved to know she would be helping Cole. She remembers a long needle inserted into her hip to draw some of her bone marrow. She was given an anesthetic but it still hurt to walk afterward.

Four boys shared the unit with him. They all had cancer and died by the time the hospital discharged Cole.

Cole lived in the hospital’s transplant unit from June to September 1992. Antibiotics were injected into a catheter in his chest that led directly to his heart. His parents had to scrub down and wear hospital gowns before they could visit with him. April and Jon pressed a button and spoke to him through glass. For his second birthday, they held his presents up to the window. Four boys shared the unit with him. They all had cancer and died by the time the hospital discharged Cole.

Cole thinks he remembers the morning he left but probably not because he was only two. April told him he didn’t want to leave. The hospital had been home for a long time.

But the transplant did not fully reverse the syndrome. Doctors put him on the drug Gammagard to help fight infection. It cost about $3,700 a month, Yvonne says. Cole also required weekly blood tests that cost $400 each. In addition, the family had prescriptions to fill. Dozens of medicine bottles cluttered the kitchen counter. Yvonne remembers one cost $250 for each refill.

Joe thought the doctors were crazy. He just wanted to fix Cole.

“You take care of him,” Joe told Yvonne. “I’ll take care of everything else.”

* * *

During my prison visit, Jackson told me he began hauling meth after his father died in October 1993 and he assumed his stepmother’s mortgage payment and other expenses. Up until then, Jackson had been scraping by paying Cole’s medical bills. But this new obligation overwhelmed him. He enlisted his brother Tommy to drive the supplier when he couldn’t.

Yvonne knew what he was up to. She knew some of the people he hung around with weren’t nice. She knew, too, that if they didn’t have money to pay for Cole, he would die. She understood the money Joe brought home did not come from the generosity of strangers.

“We talked about it,” Jackson wrote to me. “I mean, how could we not? Yvonne was terrified & of course all I could do was lie to her and tell her it would all work out. She knew in her heart I was gone & she would be left to pick up & carry on all by herself.”

* * *

February 18, 2014

Believe me, after just doing a year in Mississippi, the farthest thing [from] my mind was having to do something illegal again. I ran both my trucks as hard & fast as I could for a year & then sold them both. I done everything I could and done it all legal and probably never would have gotten into any more trouble if that transplant would have done what they said & healed my son. I would have been happy working in that shop doing paint & body & never leaving home. It just didn’t turn out like that.

* * *

In May 1995, federal agents raided Jackson’s home and the homes of Juanita Jackson and his brother Tommy.

Juanita was still in bed when they showed up at five, maybe six, in the morning. She opened the front door to ten or more plainclothes officers.

“Do you have weapons?” one of them demanded.

She was so shocked she could barely answer.

“Yes, a gun. A deer rifle. It’s never been used. I’ll get it.”

“No, ma’am. We will,” an officer told her.

They stayed a long time. Juanita gathered from the way they talked that they were looking for drugs. They didn’t find anything other than her medication.

About the same time federal agents knocked on Juanita’s door, Yvonne woke to an odd sound. Joe was in Arizona delivering a load of Gatorade. She looked out a window and saw helicopters and a plane and dozens of men in camouflage fatigues. One of them spoke into a loudspeaker.

“Come out with your hands up!”

Yvonne put her three children in a bedroom. She knew someone had made a huge mistake. It’s the neighbor they want, she thought. The police had been at his house several times before.

She walked outside and dots from the agents’ laser sites covered her body. One of them told her to quiet her Rottweiler, Die Hard, or he’d shoot it. He then asked her name and if anyone else was inside. After she answered, he asked if the children belonged to Joe Jackson.

“Yes,” Yvonne said. “All I have in the house is my three kids. I’m going back in there.”

The agents asked her to bring the children out on the porch. After a while, they told her to leave while they searched the house. She made Jon go to school. She thought if they did normal things they would all wake up and everything would be just as before.

Yvonne took April and Cole to her mother’s house. Four hours later, she returned to her home. It looked as if a tornado had blasted through. Pots and pans all over the place. Couches overturned. A computer broken. Clothes thrown every which way on the floor. All the loose change had been taken. A paper thing Jon made in school was torn up, and the baby books, too. Yvonne’s lingerie strewn across the bed.

No drugs were found in the house and no warrant issued for Joe, but Yvonne knew it was only a matter of time. She called him in Arizona.

“The feds are looking for you,” she said.

* * *

No one at Jon’s school knew about the raid. Eight-year-old Jon felt weird not talking about it. It was the same kind of feeling he got when his grandfather Billy Allen died. Just weird.

Jon remembers his mother and father talking. He felt the tension between them. Seemed like they were both worried. Real worried. They knew there would be trouble.

“I may do some time,” his father said.

* * *

Jackson returned home from Arizona only to find that the authorities had not issued a warrant for his arrest. He continued working. He had bills to pay and a son who was still sick. He didn’t haul much meth after the May raid. He knew the end was near.

In November, Jackson’s house was raided again and a warrant issued for his arrest. He was not home at the time but upon the advice of an attorney, he turned himself in. By then Tommy had been arrested in California and extradited to Texas.

Both brothers refused to cooperate with Michael Snipes, the assistant US attorney, and testify against the supplier. The supplier, however, had other ideas. He testified against Jackson and accused him of being the ringleader. According to transcripts, the supplier said that between the spring of 1993 and October 1994, he and Jackson drove to California “eight or nine” times and bought “probably 180 pounds” of meth.

Jackson disputed the amount when I spoke to him in prison. He said he transported five to eleven pounds of meth two times from October to December 1993 and three or four times from January 1994 to May 1995.

The supplier had taken the stand before Judge John McBryde. McBryde is known in Texas for his harsh sentencing.

In 1997, one year after Jackson’s trial, the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a rare public reprimand finding McBryde to have “abused judicial power, imposed unwarranted sanctions on lawyers, and repeatedly and unjustifiably attacked individual lawyers and groups of lawyers and court personnel.” His “intemperate, abusive and intimidating treatment of lawyers, fellow judges, and others has detrimentally affected the effective administration of justice and the business of the courts in the Northern District of Texas.”

McBryde was not allowed any new cases for a year. He denied the circuit court’s characterizations of his behavior.

“He’s known for not giving insignificant sentences,” said Texas criminal attorney William S. Harris. “He is unashamed of his relatively conservative and severe sentencing. That’s a fair statement and one I think he wouldn’t disagree with.”

McBryde’s office did not return my calls.

* * *

Thinking his attorney was charging too much and doing too little, Jackson hired another lawyer, Bill Lane. But Lane was unable to prevent the jury from delivering a guilty verdict on February 14, 1996. McBryde would determine the sentence at a hearing later that spring.

On May 17, 1996, Lane spoke before McBryde of Jackson’s “gravely ill son.” He suggested federal sentencing guidelines offered some leeway “departing downward when we have an individual that’s faced with a situation of duress.”

Lane then submitted to the court a folder of forty letters from family, friends, and the community requesting leniency for Jackson. Another folder contained photographs, letters, and medical reports concerning Cole.

According to the transcripts, McBryde said he had “read all the letters, and I was very impressed with the letters.”

“I’d ask the court to take that into consideration and give Joe Jackson whatever consideration you can,” Lane said, “as much as it’s clear throughout that two-volume [set of letters and doctors’ reports] the situation that this family was in. And I’m not sure, being a father of four small children myself, I’m not sure what situation I would find myself in with a life-threatening situation with a young child and nowhere to turn; and flatly, judge, several doctors and hospitals saying, ‘If you don’t come up with the cash, we’re not going to save your child.’”

Lane sat down. The courtroom got quiet. The Jackson family watched McBryde. He didn’t speak right away. Jon thought McBryde looked huge in his black robe and he started to cry.

The Court: OK. The court orders, adjudges and decrees that the defendant be committed to the US Bureau of Prisons to serve a term of imprisonment of life—

Mrs. Jackson: No, no, no.

The Court:—on each of the Counts 1, 6, and 7 of the indictment.

Mrs. Jackson: No. No. You can’t do that. You can’t just take him away. No, no. You’re not God. You’re not.

(Mrs. Jackson leaves the courtroom.)

Although he had no prior convictions, Tommy Jackson also received a life sentence. The supplier was sentenced to ten years.

* * *

February 18, 2014

As for going back to jail after sentencing, they put us in the hole. Said we’d be a danger to the general population and we can’t have that but promised us they would try & get us on to prison as soon as possible. And they did. Exactly one month later, we were on a bus headed to the Federal Transfer Center at Oklahoma City. Tommy was going to Florence, [Colorado], & I was headed to Leavenworth, [Kansas].

* * *

Bill Lane told me, Jackson “did a stupid and criminal act but he’s not a criminal. He didn’t get up every morning to rob somebody. His mindset was to take care of his kid. I’ve had the pleasure of representing real criminals. They accept the risk. Jail is part of doing business. That wasn’t his deal. He had a reason. It’s not legal justification to do what he did. It doesn’t limit his culpability but it does allow for giving him some slack.”

Michael Snipes said he always had “a bad feeling” about the Jackson case. Snipes, now a judge, insisted he had no quarrel with the life sentence; that was what federal sentencing guidelines called for at the time. However, though the guidelines made the sentence “fairly mandatory,” McBryde “still could have departed down if he wished. He didn’t necessarily have to do it.”

In 2013, Snipes wrote a letter on behalf of Jackson in support of the family’s effort to obtain clemency or a pardon.

“I prosecuted hundreds, if not thousands, of cases during my thirteen-year career with the United States Attorney’s Office,” Snipes wrote. “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money for his gravely ill child. Although I have no personal knowledge of how Mr. Jackson has performed as an inmate, I would support any decision to pardon or give him clemency based on the facts of the case.”

I told Snipes his support of Jackson surprised me. I‘d read the trial transcripts and saw no hint of his conflicted feelings.

“I was doing my job,” Snipes said.

* * *

In January, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would solicit applications from defense attorneys for inmates serving long sentences for drug crimes who would make good candidates for early release. Jackson appears to be a strong candidate, and his current lawyer, Texas attorney Richard Burr, is planning to file a recommendation on his behalf.

Last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight prisoners convicted of crack cocaine offenses, six of whom were serving life sentences.

* * *

January 21, 2014

It’s already Saturday, you’re off visiting my family in [Texas] and I’m probably one of the loneliest people in the country right now. You asked me to describe my life in prison and that’s the best description there is—lonely…. I’d just as soon every day be Monday. And I try to make ’em all Monday too. I try to find something to keep me busy every day, all day. If you ever stop moving in here, it all comes rushing back at you—home & how you miss it.

* * *

Jackson is fifty-five years old. Over the years, he has been moved from one prison to another. No reason, he told me. It was just pack up, Jackson. You’re moving.

In Forrest City, he works in a prison grocery store and earns seventy-five cents an hour. Because of his age and the length of time he has been imprisoned, he says he has the respect of other inmates. He has completed his GED and hours of vocational classes. His February progress report reads in part that he “has related appropriately and effectively with staff, peers, visitors, and family by observing basic social rules. He displays the ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships.”

The report also found Jackson to be fully employable.

* * *

Sue Barrow has not visited Joe in Forrest City. Too long a drive for an elderly person, she says. But she thinks of him every day. She remembers going to the hospital and seeing him with Cole. He would stay half the day with him and Yvonne the other half.

Barrow has written more senators than she can name about Joe’s situation but they don’t have time to fool with her. If you do the crime, you do the time. That’s a response she has received two or three times. She blames herself for Joe’s incarceration. She should have been a better mother instead of screwing around when she was younger.

“I’m paying for it now,” she says. “I’m paying for my son in the worst possible way.”

* * *

Juanita Jackson doesn’t dwell too much on what people say about her stepson. Joe did for Cole what he knew to do. Trucking and hauling. That’s all he knew. That’s how he dealt with it.

She visited him in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, and Beaumont, Texas. El Reno, Oklahoma, too. Drove there by herself, an hour or so. Hasn’t been to Forrest City. She had knee replacement surgery last year and can’t sit in a car too long.

Joe called the other day. She told him the electricity that pumped water from her well had played out. It had been fixing to do that for a while. She called a well man and an electrician. Wasn’t cheap.

“Well, Mom,” Joe said, “if you had told me there was a problem, I’d’ve fixed it before I come to jail.”

* * *

April needed someone to blame after her father was sentenced. Just fourteen years old at the time, she fought a lot with her mother.

“Why didn’t you stop it?” she’d say. “Why didn’t you stop him from doing it?”

Sometimes she spoke to her father as if he could hear her.

“Why’d you do this? I need you.”

She grew to hate Boyd. Such a small town. People would ask her, How’s your dad? He’s incarcerated, isn’t he? She wanted to punch them. Vicious gossips. She felt people were watching her.

After high school, she wanted to get out of Boyd. She attended Texas Christian University for one year and then drove to the South Padre Islands for the summer and decided to stay, forfeiting her college scholarship. Later, she lived in Brownsville, dated, and became pregnant. She worried her father would be disappointed. They spoke every week by phone and he comforted her.

“I’m in prison,” he told her. “How can I be disappointed in you?”

April is thirty-two now and married. She and her brother Jon co-own a custom design print shop. Cole works there, too. In January, she had her fourth child, a boy. Until his birth, she and her brothers and her older children had visited Jackson regularly. The children, April says, have grown close to their grandfather. He talks to them on the phone and sends cards on their birthdays. They know he is in prison for drugs. They know he won’t get out. They ask their mother, How does he buy groceries? Where does he eat?

Sometimes she wonders if her father would have been better off had he received the death penalty. She feels selfish to hope nothing happens to him.

April remembers the good times. Those times when she was little and she’d ride with her father in his truck. She’d sit up front, her mother in back. She and her father sang songs. She liked how the purple lights on the sides of the truck would light up snow at night.

“The only memories we have in the last eighteen years are those sitting in a prison visiting room,” she says.

Sometimes she wonders if her father would have been better off had he received the death penalty. She feels selfish to hope nothing happens to him. It would be easier for him if something did. She would grieve and then the healing would begin. There’s no healing with a life sentence, only limbo and constant worry.

He did what he did and April is glad he was caught and punished and has learned that what he did was wrong. But he wasn’t there to walk her down the aisle, see the birth of her children. Does the punishment fit the crime? She doesn’t think so and feels cheated by the years without him.

You can be dead set against something like drugs until something happens to you, she says, and then it’s hard to know how you’d react or where you’d turn for help.

Maybe she’d have a different outlook if she wasn’t in this situation. But she is.

* * *

As a boy, Jon could not comprehend life without his father. He made up stories. He’d say his father was on a truck driving to Maine, the farthest place he could think of to explain his father’s absence.

When he turned twelve, Jon started working in a cabinet shop. By then he had stopped telling people his father was in Maine. His friends didn’t come over as much but he didn’t care. He didn’t need people around. Now, twenty-six, he still doesn’t.

He and his father are just alike. Jon knows everything about cars and trucks. They talk about new trucks over the phone but the conversations aren’t easy. Fuel-injected engines weren’t in widespread use when his father went to prison. It took Jon six months to get his father to understand some of the vehicles coming out. He sent him photographs and they went over them on the phone.

Jon doesn’t like to think of his parents’ divorce. His mother told him and he got upset but after a while he understood. You can’t have a marriage with someone locked up. He’d bring up the divorce just to be a bad kid. “You left Dad, I don’t need to listen to you,” he’d tell his mother.

One day his father called from prison and said something about a man Yvonne was dating. “I guess Mom’s boyfriend is a good guy,” he told Jon. “I guess you got a new dad.” Jon went off. To him, it wasn’t like that. To him, his father was his father and no one else would be. No one.

“You’re not here, Dad,” Jon snapped. “You ain’t got no right to say that to me.”


Then his father started crying.

* * *

Cole and his friends were so young when his father went to jail that none of them understood what had happened and no one sassed Cole about it.

Instead everyone was on him to be careful but sometimes he didn’t listen. Like this one afternoon. He was about six years old and still seeing doctors at least twice a week. He jumped his bicycle over a cinder block, fell, and cut his left shin. He bandaged it and continued playing. That evening, he woke up in the middle of the night, and his bed sheets were covered in blood. The cut hadn’t clotted. His mother rushed him to the hospital. He understood then that his illness prevented him from playing games other boys played.

Cole got to know his father on prison visits but it was hard to talk to him with April and Jon and everybody else trying to talk to him, too. In hindsight, the journeys were sometimes more memorable than the visits. Cole can’t count the number of times he watched a video of The Fox and the Hound on car trips. That ended on a drive to see Jackson in Leavenworth, when someone broke into their Blazer overnight and stole the video and the portable TV/VCR he used to watch it.

At Leavenworth, Cole’s father entertained him with card tricks that he learned from another inmate. Illusions. Fooled Cole. His father always had a new magic trick. Another time, Cole’s father had a beard. Cole didn’t recognize him for a minute. His mother always went along on prison visits until one day she didn’t. “Me and Dad divorced,” she said. It didn’t change much. Cole’s father had been gone a while by then. It wasn’t as if there’d have been joint custody.

Little things determine if you know somebody, Cole says. He knows his father likes rock ‘n’ roll. But if he and Cole went to a restaurant, Cole would not know what his father would want to eat.

Jackson may not be here with Cole but Cole is convinced that he would not be here at all if it wasn’t for his father.

When he considers his life, Cole shrugs and figures that somehow he beat the odds and lived. His doctors don’t know why. Maybe his illness will catch up to him like Parkinson’s has caught up with Muhammad Ali. Until then, he’ll just keep doing what he’s doing and not worry.

He talks to his father once a week. His father is a good listener. Cole tells him things like he would a parent but his father doesn’t seem like a parent. More like a relative he rarely sees. Jackson may not be here with Cole but Cole is convinced that he would not be here at all if it wasn’t for his father.

He thinks about his father the same way he considers history. Back during the Vietnam War, people called returning American soldiers “baby killers.” They didn’t know what they were talking about. They weren’t in that situation. How could they judge? The same is true with his father. A big-money drug dealer was the only person he knew to go to for help. People say that he could have done this or that. Do they have sick kids? Do they have health insurance? Do they have good-paying jobs?

“Makes a difference,” Cole says.

* * *

Joe has been in prison now almost twenty years, Yvonne Jackson says. He was thirty-seven when he was sentenced, she was thirty-five. They didn’t know it then but they were just kids. Just two scared kids.

Boyd filled with rumors after his arrest. People said the Jacksons had money stashed in tunnels under their house. Bodies lay buried on the property. When she attended one of April’s basketball games, people sat away from her. She was kicked off the PTA and no longer allowed to substitute teach.

“My Daddy didn’t do drugs,” she overheard April tell a girl one day. “He hauled them. Get it right.”

A fire at a neighbor’s house damaged the Jackson home, and the $8,000 they received from the neighbor’s insurance company helped pay Cole’s bills. Then, after Joe had been imprisoned for about ten years, a lawyer called Yvonne. He told her their former health insurer had agreed to pay a $5,000 penalty for having discontinued the family’s health coverage.

Life didn’t stop, however. There were so many bills. At one time, Yvonne worked three jobs. She also opened a restaurant with her mother and, since people enjoyed gossiping about the Jacksons, called it Talk of the Town.

She is employed today with a telecommunications company. She does not blame Joe for the difficult years. He did what he thought was best for his family. Guys are made to take care of their families, to provide for them, and that’s what he did.

While Cole was hospitalized, a father of one of the boys in his isolation unit abandoned his family, Yvonne recalls. He couldn’t take the stress of his son’s terminal cancer. But Joe never left. Whatever anyone wants to say about him, they better say that, too.

Joe never left.

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Jackson with his family before his incarceration and during a recent prison visit

J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer and author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul and What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and Forgotten. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His book, Riding through Katrina with the Red Baron's Ghost: A Memoir of Friendship, Family and a Life Writing Stories, will be released in August 2018. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Essays.

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