As I sat on my bunk — trying to understand why I was denied parole yet again — something in my mind was telling me that the parole board was never going to grant me parole and give me another chance. Even after I had done everything they asked of me, they kept denying me based on the heinousness of my crime — something I can never change — no matter what I do or who I become or how much I change my life.
I will never be able to change the horrible nature of my crime, so why give me a life sentence with the possibility of parole if I’m going to keep being denied based on the only thing I cannot change?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get it — I committed a horrible crime. I chased someone through the streets of Oakland ’til I cornered him in a backyard and I gunned him down — and for that I had to be punished — but how much is enough? I was only a kid when I committed that terrible crime, and 17 years later I was still being told that’s not enough. How do I get them to see that I’m not the same person who committed that awful crime? That not a day goes by that I don’t regret my actions that night?
And how do I get the family to see that? Especially the mother, who never missed a day in court or a parole hearing. She would just sit there with tears rolling down her cheeks, staring at me with eyes filled with hate and hurt. It would just break my heart to see and hear all the hurt and pain I had caused her.
I wanted so much to reach out to her and tell her how sorry I am for killing her son — and to beg for forgiveness — but I never did. I just didn’t know how or if it would only cause her more pain. Maybe she’s right, maybe I should spend the rest of my life in prison. Why should I get another chance when I didn’t give her son a chance?
I think it was at that point that I realized that I was never going to get out of prison — the parole board was never going to give me another chance. I would always be defined by the heinousness of my crime, so I just kind of gave up hope and accepted spending the rest of my life in prison as the price I had to pay. The following week I went to church and I asked God to forgive me and to somehow touch the mother’s heart and let her know how sorry I am for killing her son.
I wanted so much to be forgiven but didn’t think I ever would be. To be honest, I was having a hard time forgiving myself — I mean, not only had I taken someone’s life but I had also destroyed my own life as well. How do I forgive myself for that? I just couldn’t.
And then a few months later I was going through my legal work and came across the address of the victim’s family. They usually block the address out but somehow didn’t — I just sat there staring at that address for about an hour, wondering if this was my chance to say all the things I wanted to say to his mother.
Finally I decided to write and tell her how sorry I was, and ask for forgiveness. It took me three weeks to finish the letter and it ended up being 12 pages long. I poured my heart into her — told her about all the horrible things I suffered as a child and how carrying a gun became a way of protecting myself after being hurt so much by so many people. I then told her exactly what happened on the night that I killed her son — taking full responsibility for my actions and telling her how sorry I am for killing her son.
At the end I told her that I know I’ll probably have to spend the rest of my life in prison as payment for the life that I took, and that I accept that as my reality, but hopefully one day she can find it in her heart to somehow forgive me, and if not, then I understand because I haven’t been able to forgive myself, and not a day goes by that I don’t regret what I did and if I could give my life to bring him back I would in a heartbeat because he didn’t deserve to die.
When I mailed the letter I felt a sense of relief — I was finally able to say all the things I’ve always wanted to say to her. Three years went by and to my surprise at my next parole hearing she didn’t show up — this was the first time she hadn’t shown up but I didn’t think anything of it, and once again I was denied parole based on the heinousness of my crime — which was what I expected.
Three more years went by and I had now been in prison for 23 years. When I went to my next parole board hearing — and she didn’t show up once again — there was a letter from the family, and I was sure they would be asking the parole board not to grant me parole.
But as they started reading I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — they told the parole board that they believe I had served enough time and should be given another chance. They said they believed that my life would best be served in the community helping others to not make the same choices I did, and that they individually and collectively forgave Mr. Jackson for his crime. And finally she said that if she saw Mr. Jackson walking down the street toward her, that she would feel totally safe.
The front of my shirt was soaked with tears — I couldn’t stop crying — they had finally forgiven me. I felt such a relief as I sat there. Then the parole board decided to find me suitable for parole based largely on the letter that the family had written. I took their loved one’s life and they forgave me and gave me my life back and for that I will be forever grateful … and sad.
Jesse Jackson is a 53-year-old who has spent over 30 years in the criminal justice system. In Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., for a probation violation, he was scheduled to be released in May.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.