This Man Sold Meth to Pay for His Son’s Lifesaving Transplant. Obama Gave Him Clemency—But His Ordeal Continues at a 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 prioritized by either a President Clinton or a President Trump. AlterNet andThe 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,” Jackson has written. His family, which was certainly not made of money in the first place—Jackson had driven a truck for a living—soon faced the kind of health insurance nightmare that might 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 through 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, they 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 to do all that was to help transport meth on his truck route. A meth dealer he knew—Jackson had occasionally used meth to stay awake on long drives—asked him to carry the drug in his truck.
Then Jackson sold meth to an undercover cop. He was arrested in 1995. In part because the supplier testified against him, claiming that 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 also 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 that he was “approved for home confinement,” April says, he 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.”
On their website, Volunteers of America write, “We excel at meeting immediate needs, but are able to transform lives through our belief in, and reliance on, grace.” They didn’t reply to a request for comment—but their cheery recorded message says they “Help the vulnerable reach their full potential.”