Arthur Jackson

Arthur J. Jackson was a nonviolent drug offender when he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 35 years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in 1994. He served nearly 25 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on October 5, 2016.

In the early 90’s I was working everyday at two Dallas restaurants and still struggling to make ends meet. I took care of my girlfriend and her two daughters, who considered me their father. It was hard to always worry about money. Then a guy I knew told me he was looking for someone he could trust to be a courier for him. He’d pay me a $1,000 a week to pick up money, count it, and drop off packages of cocaine.

At about 2AM in 1992, the Dallas Police Department raided the apartment where I lived with my partner. They kicked the door in, guns raised, and trashed the house. They took everything I owned in a single night. I was arrested along with my partner who would eventually be my co-defendant and I sat in jail for about 3 days until I made bond.

Because I was a courier, there was a lot of cash in the apartment that night, probably about $250,000. The officers only reported finding $2,000.

In court we beat the charges. The judge dismissed the case against us citing an illegal search and seizure because the police never obtained a search warrant. That didn’t sit well with one of the officers, James Dewees. He called his friend, an ATF agent named Thomas Crowley, and gave him evidence to make a case against us. In turn, Crowley took this information to a grand jury and I was indicted the very same day. Now my state case was federal.

The prosecutors wanted to see me get the longest sentence possible and the disparity between crack and powder was 100:1 which means having five grams of crack would trigger the same minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. So the case they presented against us claimed they found crack-cocaine but we didn’t have crack. It was all powder and with powder cocaine my maximum sentence should have been 36 months.

Instead of facing 36 months, I was facing 360 months.

They came to me with a plea deal for 25 years. How could I sign that? How do you sign a plea for 25 years when the maximum I should be getting is 36 months? When you and your lawyer understand the law you can’t just give up like that. So we went to trial.

I had a great attorney. His name was Bill Alexander. Bill was the assistant Dallas County District Attorney when President Kennedy was assassinated and prosecuted Jack Ruby for killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He went on to be a United States prosecutor before becoming a defense attorney.

Bill submitted lab reports that proved it was powder — cocaine hydrochloride cut with benzocaine — but it didn’t matter to the jury. In 1994 I was convicted and given a mandatory minimum sentence of 420 months spread across three counts. Because they found a gun in the apartment I was convicted of carrying a firearm during a drug crime.

My judge disagreed with the sentence 100%.

He stated for the record that his hands were bound by the mandatory minimum guidelines and that he was forced to hand down this sentence. That was just crazy to me. We put judges in positions to make judicial decisions and then these laws take away their power to make those decisions. But a prosecutor gets to decide your whole fate. They decided everything.

It was devastating. To stand there in a courtroom and hear that you’re being sentenced to 360 months on count one, 120 months on count 2, and 60 months on count 3… it’s hard to explain. By the time I added it all up I was already out of the courtroom. Things move so fast.

My daughters were young. One was six-year-old and the other was just six-months-old. During the trial my family members had to sit there and listen to people take the stand and lie about me, people who were cooperating with the government to get a reduced sentence. They have to go through this whole ordeal.

After the trial I was sent to the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana. That was far enough away to make visits from my family a challenge. The hardest thing to get used to was the restrictions of my movement and being told what to do all the time. Being told that this is when I can eat and that I’ll have the same meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That I can’t go outside when I want to. That I can’t be outside when the sun goes down.

You have to occupy your mind.

I worked in the food service. I took college courses. I learned leatherwork and started making bags, wallets, belts. You have to do things to keep yourself busy and your mind occupied.

I went back to school and retook all of the basics: english, math, American history, European history, psychology 1, 2, and 3. Then I enrolled in theological study and I did that for years, keeping a 4.0 GPA. I took business management courses and I got certified for quality assurance management. I got my certification in accounting and I’m Six Sigma certified.

I worked hard to prepare myself for being released so that I could be acclimated and ready to work in a business atmosphere and not be stuck doing manual labor breaking my back.

In 1999, I noticed a mass growing on my leg.

I went to the medical staff to have it looked at and the doctor there told me it was just a cyst. For three years this went misdiagnosed. It wasn’t until 2002 when I was sent to have an unrelated knee surgery outside the prison that I was able to ask a different doctor to look at the mass, which by this time was about the size of a golf ball. He didn’t want to inspect it because he was under instruction to only help with my knee, but once he saw it, he knew it was serious.

A biopsy came back as cancer but they never informed me because I was already scheduled to have surgery to remove the mass a few months later. But the biopsy caused an infection and the mass grew so big that it ruptured out of my leg. It was just incredible pain. I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to go through that. I was transported to the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s and from there I went to a state prison hospital and underwent surgery. For an entire year I remained there while recovering and going through chemotherapy.

In 2013 I filed a petition for clemency. It didn’t take too long before I received a letter from Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff telling my petition had been denied. There’s no explanation, just a letter about three sentences long.

By this time I had been moved to the prison camp. A camp is a prison facility with no fence. The only thing that stops you from leaving is you. It’s for inmates with good conduct where you’re able to have a bit more mobility and activities.

A friend of mine was granted clemency in 2014 so I contacted him and he put me in touch with his attorney out of Washington, D.C. who then connected me with a law firm in Florida that part of the Clemency Project 2014. The lawyer there was fantastic. She looked at everything in my case and put together a new clemency petition and submitted it for me.

President Obama granted me clemency October 5, 2016.

The camp administrator came up to me with two lieutenants and told me that they found some missing items from the kitchen, things like vegetables, in my cell. They told me to come with them and I said no. I knew I hadn’t stolen anything and as they kept pressuring me I started getting frustrated. He started to let up, telling me, “I just wanted to give you a hard time because you’re never in trouble. You never do anything to give me the chance to ride you like the other guys so I just thought I’d give you a hard time. Come with us.”

As we walked into the administrator’s office my case manager handed me a phone. The voice on the other line was a woman. “Is this, Arthur Jackson? Do you know who this is? This is Kathryn Yanes. Are you standing up? Have a seat.”

Just go ahead and tell me. The petition has been denied, right?

“No. The President signed your clemency petition two hours ago,” she said.

I couldn’t believe it. My whole life changed with a phone call. I went from having nine more years left in prison to nine days. After 24 years, it was finally over.

Life comes at you fast.

The first thing I did when I left prison was see my daughters. We spent that whole day together. They love and support me and want to see me be successful. It’s a rebuilding process because they are grown now and they grew up with me in prison.

I went to a halfway house and stayed there until February. This was a new set of rules and challenges, but it was more freedom than I’d had in 24 years. Once you leave the halfway house, life comes at you from different angles real fast. Suddenly you have bills to pay. You have to be responsible for your own clothing. You have to provide yourself with transportation and your own food. If you don’t have a support group to help you with all of that, you’re destined to fail without one.

About a week after my release from the halfway house, I was headed to a job fair at the Wyndham Hotel in Dallas where companies were hiring on the spot that day. On my train ride there I bumped into a guy a knew who was also recently released from prison. He told me to come the Sheraton where he works because they we also having a job fair that day. We were one stop away and I just decided to go for it.

I filled out the job application, attached my resume, and met with the front office manager Philip Dunn. I was straightforward and explained had just gotten out of prison and that President Obama released me. I had my clemency letter from the White House signed by the president right there, along with proof of all the certifications I had earned while in prison.

I met with two other people including the General Manager of the hotel who, after we spoke, told Philip to get the contract and give me the job. He said, “If the president will give you a chance, I will.”

Working at the Sheraton has been a great opportunity and they’ve empowered me to do my best at this job. I am grateful for them. I work in guest services so anything that anyone at the Sheraton needs, I try to accommodate them. Whether it’s soap, toothpaste, or some type of service, it’s my job to assist them and make sure that they’re satisfied. If there’s a problem, I provide a resolution.

I show up whenever they ask, even on my off days. They gave me this opportunity and I want to show them that they did not make a mistake.

I want President Obama to know how much this second chance means to me and that I’m working hard each and everyday. He’ll never have to think twice about the decision he made to commute my sentence.


Photos by Jon Perri Twitter

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