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Jamie Jackson

Arrested and ultimately sentenced to life without parole when he was just 17, Jamie Jackson spent three decades in prison. Now, he is adjusting to life after incarceration.

“Serving a life sentence equates to being in a situation in which you’ve been taken away from everything that’s natural to your life, and you’ve had all hope stripped away. It is extremely scary and hard for a young individual to be in a confined, controlled environment for years.” — Jamie Jackson

Arrested and convicted at a young age, Jamie Jackson spent three decades behind bars for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Since his release in 2021, he has been working hard to reacclimate to society. He has also been actively involved in community initiatives that foster safety and youth empowerment, while supporting people who are still incarcerated. “I will always think about the guys that I left behind; I will continue to do everything I can to make their lives better.”

The Negative Effects of Peer Pressure

Jamie Jackson grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a positive family environment shaped by his caring and hardworking parents. “My family upbringing was great. My father owned a furniture store, and my mother worked for the post office.”. Jamie was involved in his community, often volunteering at the church pantry and assisting other relatives, especially after his aunt had a stroke. He also enjoyed hanging out with his good friends in the neighborhood. When talking about school, Jamie describes himself as a “good and active student” who played different sports and was involved in a wide variety of activities. 

This positive dynamic quickly changed in high school, when Jamie started hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” and was exposed to things he had not been exposed to before. “Some of my peers were affiliated with gangs, some sold drugs. I became entangled in that: I started missing school, my grades slipped,” he explains. He attributes these negative changes to his desire to gain acceptance from his peers and can now see that because he succumbed to peer pressure, he “forfeited his future.” 

Jamie was first arrested and placed on a 1-year supervision for bringing a firearm to school. Two years later, he was charged with murder at age 17 and his life was “completely turned upside down.” During the lengthy trial process, he spent two and a half years at the Cook County Jail. In spite of his claims of innocence, he was sentenced to life without parole at age 19. 

Jamie admits that he did not immediately grasp the significance of this sentence. “I asked my attorney, ‘What is natural life? What does the judge mean?’” but his attorney’s explanation was not enough to make him fully apprehend the meaning of “natural life.” After a brief stint at the now-closed Joliet Correctional Center, he was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, where he was finally able to process the idea of spending the rest of his life in prison. “I saw my sentence written on paper. I saw big prison walls. The only thing I could see was the sky: no civilization, nothing. That’s when it started to resonate with me.” 

 

A Dark and Scary Place

Jamie’s first years behind bars were hard, as his efforts to protect himself in this new environment had dire consequences. “I had to deal with adults, and sometimes they wanted to prey on me,” he says. He carried knives in order to defend himself. As a result, he was charged with possession of a weapon and ended up in solitary confinement. Those six months of isolation were among the darkest moments of his time in prison. He found his time in isolation to be arduous, both physically and mentally. “At first they took everything away from me. I had nothing, nothing at all, and they gradually gave me only a few things back,” he states. In addition to deprivation, he had to adapt to crushing living conditions. “I had to find ways to adjust to being locked up in the cage for 23 or 24 hours a day.” 

In order to cope with extreme loneliness, boredom, and silence, he tried to find ways to “capitalize on his time.” He created a routine to avoid depression: “I would workout in the room, then wash up, eat, do some reading or writing, and after that I’d just wear myself out playing chess or praying. And I did it everyday, continuously.” Looking back, Jamie believes that solitary confinement was his “breaking point.” From then on he decided to do better. “I told myself, ‘I am trying to get out of prison, not to get buried in prison’.” 

Jamie blamed himself for his bad decisions for a long time, but ultimately, he understood that dwelling on the past was not a healthy coping strategy. He also was prompted to think about other ways to deal with his situation after witnessing several suicides and suicide attempts took a toll on him. 

Spirituality and faith played a significant role in Jamie’s personal growth and transformation. “I told myself that maybe God had plans for me that were beyond my understanding. I was doing so many things and I wasn’t listening to his voice. I decided to listen to God’s voice, and from then on I looked at my incarceration as a spiritual punishment more than anything else. And that’s how I was able to find solace.” 

Once Jamie made this spiritual and mental transition, his mindset completely changed, and he was able to think more positively. He stopped blaming himself and channeled his energy towards his rehabilitation. He did everything to stay out of trouble and remain focused. “I went back to school, I got my GED certificate, and I went to college. I worked on my spirituality, I worked on my language — I stopped using profanities — and I really got myself in order.” Although he had no release date, he wanted to be ready to transition back effectively into society, should he ever get the opportunity.                      

Jamie also found a sense of purpose by helping others. “I did my best to be an asset to other younger individuals getting incarcerated. I tried to educate them. I told them about my situation to help them make better decisions whenever they had the opportunity to be released from prison. I thought if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison, I could at least try to have an impact outside,” he says. He is particularly proud of assisting his brother in improving his life. “I talked to [my brother], I made sure he took and stayed on the right track. Today he is a policeman, who is working hard to bring about changes within the department,” he says with a smile.

 

“I was Free Before I was Freed.”

Throughout his incarceration, Jamie found strength in the encouragement and support from his friends and family.  “My mom was always there for me, so were my sister and my brothers. In fact, my family was my biggest support system,” he recalls. A few friends also assisted him. And while receiving emotional care, he sustained himself financially by working as much as possible. 

Even with the support of friends and family, the lack of legal assistance was stressful and weighed on Jamie, especially during the first 12 years of his imprisonment. It was a stressful period as he went to the library regularly to read books, understand his case, and help himself. “I had to find the right statues, write appeals, and get everything to court in a timely manner. I was scared because when you make a mistake, they penalize you for it,” he says. Jamie can’t help but think that proper legal representation would have made a difference, and he might have been home earlier. Nevertheless, he appreciates the attorneys and team of paralegals who took over his case and fought for his release. “I finally met good lawyers by being proactive and writing. I was constantly telling my story to various law firms, hoping that someone would believe in my struggle enough to help me,” he explains.

Opportunity for release came with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama. “That was a paramount decision. It was huge! It gave me a glimpse of hope. Everything I believed in was coming to fruition,” Jamie remembers. As a result of the ruling, he received a new sentence in 2021, which was an emotional and memorable moment. “I was crying. I hugged my attorneys and my family.” 

On the edge of freedom, he started thinking about how to realize his plans. “I told myself once home, I would relax for a month, then get my identification card, find a job, a place to live, and just get acclimated back to society. I had short-term and long-term goals. I wanted to build myself up one step at a time; I wanted to start from the bottom and work my way up. I had been waiting for a long time, and I was ready for the challenges. I was free before I was freed.” A few days after his resentencing hearing, he was released from prison. 

Jamie has overcome several challenges since returning home. “A major obstacle was identification. They made the process so hard. It took me almost 2 months to get an ID and a basic Social Security card.” He is grateful he didn’t go through this alone: his friends who came home before him provided much needed assistance, and he considers their presence a blessing. Finding a decent job was also a frustrating and stressful experience. But after “bouncing around from one job to another,” Jamie finally found one he actually likes: making diesel exhaust fluid for trucks. “I have my own lab, and I do a lot of testing,” he says with a smile.

Jamie is resolved to protect his future. “I am very careful. I don’t really go out. I just kind of stay at home to relax, watch a movie, or do some work.” He wants to avoid any problematic situations, and to remain focused, lest he be sidetracked, or worse, relive the trauma of incarceration. “I’m never going back to prison, never,” he says emphatically.

Jamie With His Dog

Adjusting to Life after Incarceration

Jamie has overcome several challenges since returning home. “A major obstacle was identification. They made the process so hard. It took me almost 2 months to get an ID and a basic Social Security card.” He is grateful he didn’t go through this alone: his friends who came home before him provided much needed assistance, and he considers their presence a blessing. Finding a decent job was also a frustrating and stressful experience. But after “bouncing around from one job to another,” Jamie finally found one he actually likes: making diesel exhaust fluid for trucks. “I have my own lab, and I do a lot of testing,” he says with a smile.

Jamie is resolved to protect his future. “I am very careful. I don’t really go out. I just kind of stay at home to relax, watch a movie, or do some work.” He wants to avoid any problematic situations, and to remain focused, lest he be sidetracked, or worse, relive the trauma of incarceration. “I’m never going back to prison, never,” he says emphatically.

Jamie is eager to give back to his community by mentoring youth. From his experience, he understands “they are starving for guidance and wisdom; they are starving to be heard.” He wants to be one of the few people who give the youth in his community attention, one of the voices they listen to. He is intent on teaching them to avoid peer pressure and to “rise above the conditions that surround them.” Jamie also advocates for an increase of programs and opportunities underprivileged youth have access to. According to him, limited options increase the likelihood of incarceration. He firmly believes that there is a crucial need for funding to create educational and vocational programs that will help these youth dream of and have a better future. “Underprivileged kids also deserve a good education. Like privileged kids, they should have access to programs, workshops, mentoring, and more,” he says.

Jamie also wants to use his experience to raise awareness about Illinois’ destructive carceral system. “People don’t really understand just how flawed the system really is, until they actually study it, or until someone who is close to them is affected. It is important that people become aware of the system, and how it imposes barbaric, draconian sentences down on young people. People have to be aware so as to work towards changing the system.”

As he continues his post-incarceration journey, Jamie is enthusiastic at the prospect of achieving his professional and personal goals. He wants to show everyone, in particular the people he left behind in prison, that it is possible to succeed after a lengthy incarceration. “I want to be an inspiration to the guys who are trying to get released. I want them to see my progress and to believe that it is possible to live a productive life after prison. It may take some time, but I want to make a ray of light for them.”