Former inmate says prisons need reform

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Joe Jackson relaxes by the window in his Lewiston office next to a poster signed at a recent opioid awareness rally. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Joe Jackson. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Maine’s prisons are less equipped in preparing inmates for re-entry to the outside world than they were two decades ago, an expert in prison reform says.

“The philosophy in punishment has changed,” said Joseph Jackson of Lisbon Falls, who heads up the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Jackson should know. He has witnessed the regression firsthand, he says.

He began serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter 25 years ago at Maine State Prison in Thomaston, where the state housed prisoners before constructing a new home in Warren.

Although the old facility was architecturally and structurally outdated, the programs and policies in place in the 1990s were aimed at preparing prisoners for their successful return to society, Jackson says.

At Thomaston, in the winters, the toilets froze. In the summer, the metal walls heated up like an oven.

“But still that environment was much more conducive to rehabilitation because of the progressive policies,” he says.

That’s changed, Jackson says. And so has the racial makeup of the prison population.

Jackson, who has become an activist for prison reform after earning three college degrees behind bars, says he sees a connection.

A road to self-reliance

Since his early days at the prison when inmates learned skills and vocations, the prevailing view shifted toward one that worried “inmates had too much,” he says.

“I got to see guys learn a real craft and run their own business, become master craftsmen in woodworking, electrical work,” he says. A store on prison grounds sold inmate’s creations.

“You got out with a little money in your pocket and these guys never came back,” he says.

At the Thomaston prison, an inmate was able to earn up to $10,000 per year to send back to his family by working at a vocation behind bars. Prisoners were too busy plying their trades to engage in serious misbehavior, Jackson says.

“These were the most hardened guys I’ve ever seen and I never saw one person die from a prisoner-on-prisoner conflict the last seven years I was there” at the Thomaston prison, he says. “And now we’ve seen at least five deaths due to prisoner-on-prisoner violence in the last six years,” he says.

Moreover, the once progressive policies that steered prisoners toward a road to self-reliance are no more, he says.

“There’s no money. There’s no economic opportunity. There’s only more trauma being inflicted on those who are housed,” he says. “If you socially destroy somebody and they’re utterly hopeless, how do you not expect them to become more dangerous?”

Jackson, who travels throughout the state to speak out about what he has witnessed behind bars, is hoping to shine a light on the failings of the current Department of Corrections system.

“What we have now is broken and I know that it can be better because I’ve seen it,” he says.

When he began serving his sentence, the state prison population was 85 percent white, he says. And the staff was white. He didn’t view the prison’s policies at that time as progressive, having served four years in the U.S. Navy.

“Here’s a system where all the ills of the world are magnified,” he says. “Overt racism is very real.”

He was routinely called the “N-word” by guards and prisoners, he says. It was hard for black prisoners to get good jobs on the inside.

Even medical care was doled out unequally, he says. Two of his workout partners in prison died from a lack of medical treatment, he claims.

“It really got me heavily involved in trying to change stuff,” he says.

As the demographic began to change and the percentage of people of color in the prison population rose, prison policies became more regressive, he says. When he entered prison, blacks made up 6 percent of the prison population; they now make up 26 percent of the prison population, he says.

He says he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that regression in prison and rehabilitative policies took place at the same time that an increasingly greater percentage of the prison population was black. The earlier progressive policies were viewed as “cool when it was all white guys,” he says.

Inmates are staying in prison longer

In 1995, the Legislature changed the prison’s “good time” policy, effectively keeping inmates behind bars longer, Jackson says. When he began serving his sentence, he would be rewarded with up to 10 days a month toward a reduction of his overall sentence if he behaved properly. In addition, he could earn three more days off his sentence each month if he were to go above and beyond what was expected of him.

But that good behavior credit policy was cut in half, so that an inmate would only be given a five-day reduction per month after 1995, he says. That policy change followed a national trend to get tougher on convicted criminals.

The Department of Corrections was contacted for this story, but had not responded to questions by Saturday evening.

Jackson, a Texas native who grew up on a former slave plantation, was 27 when he started serving his sentence, having been convicted of manslaughter in a Lewiston incident.

He came to Maine after serving a hitch in the Navy, where he had been stationed in Brunswick. After his discharge, he decided to stay in Maine.

Jackson, who had completed the 11th grade before enlisting, says he couldn’t find work. Despite a top-secret security clearance in communications, no one would hire him. He applied for firefighting jobs, but no fire department would even take an application from him even though he trained as a firefighter in the military. So, he washed cars, like his semi-literate father had in Texas.

He says he tried not to think his failed job hunt was racially motivated.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” he says. He had been raised in an integrated school by parents who never spoke to their children about issues of racism.

Jackson’s first arrest in Maine came in Lewiston at age 22 when a homeowner called him the “N-word” and told him not to walk across his yard, which Jackson says he hadn’t done. He confronted the man and was arrested.

“I do what I do today because I’m trying to save as many people as I can from falling into that trap. I’m going to work my ass off because I wish like hell there was an older black guy or somebody like me that could just fill you in on the barriers and just the way people look at you and the narrative that’s created about you that has nothing to do about you,” he says. “To be unaware of them is to your detriment.”

Young black men in downtown Lewiston even now tell him they’re stopped by cops and asked for IDs. “The truth is that’s one of the first things that happened to me, too,” he says.

After his release from prison in 2013, Jackson was taken in by an upper-class family, living in a high-end neighborhood, he says. He was treated like a son. For the next three years, he never saw a cop, he says.

While in prison, Jackson completed his GED, then, in 2004, began taking courses at the University of Maine at Augusta through recorded lectures that he would view behind bars on a computer a week after the actual class was held. If he had questions, he would email or call the professor.

After taking half a dozen classes, Jackson wrote to Doris Buffett, philanthropist sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who bankrolled Jackson’s tuition at the University of Maine at Augusta. That action blossomed into a prison-wide program, he says. He graduated summa cum laude at the top of his class for both his associate and bachelor’s degrees, he says.

Jackson was the first inmate in Maine to be accepted to a master’s degree program while in prison. Before that, the university didn’t allow prisoners to pursue college degrees, he says.

Now, Jackson, a published poet, divides his time among his many activities, including a position as coordinator at Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and program facilitator at MaineInsideOut, a nonprofit group that uses theater as a way of activism and healing. He serves as a peer-to-peer mentor at Lewiston, Waterville and Portland youth groups. He is a founding member of the Maine prison chapter of the NAACP.

The license plate on his black Dodge SUV reads: “Times Up.”

[email protected]

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