Jesse Jackson Jr. told his mother not to keep in touch with him when he was in prison. It wasn’t just her. He didn’t want contact with any of his family members.
“I was in a dark place,” he said in a telephone interview from his Chicago home. “I didn’t want to hear from her. I didn’t want to see my dad.”
Jackson, a former Democratic congressman and the son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., was sentenced to 30 months in prison for misusing campaign funds. Part of that sentence was served in North Carolina at the federal prison in Butner.
But Jacqueline L. Jackson didn’t listen to her son, and those handwritten letters sustained him, becoming a lifeline as he served his sentence.
“Dear Son,” every missive began, as she reminded her oldest son constantly of her unconditional love. She wrote him daily from October 2013 to March 2015, despite her hectic life as the wife of Jackson Sr., and caring for her ailing mother and mother-in-law.
“I knew my son needed my presence in his life,” she said during a telephone interview with The News & Observer from her Chicago home. “I knew he was ashamed and embarrassed and some were riding him about his fall.”
Many of the letters are collected in her new book, “Loving You, Thinking of You, Don’t Forget to Pray: Letters to My Son in Prison,” released in February. Both Jacqueline Jackson and her son will be in the Triangle May 3 and 4 to share their story.
“Her letters sustained me,” said Jesse Jackson Jr., now 54.
He recalls every day at 4 p.m., the commanding officer would announce mail call. All the inmates would gather but many never heard their names called.
“Their heads went down,” he said. “Everybody would come to hear from someone from home. They were dismissed from their wives and children. They were abandoned and forgotten.”
Jackson, a graduate of North Carolina A&T University, represented Illinois’s 2nd Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 until 2012, when he resigned. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for spending $750,000 from his campaign on personal items.
After he went to prison, he asked family members to leave him in isolation.
“I didn’t want to talk to my brothers and sisters. I didn’t want my children to visit me in prison. That’s not how I wanted them to remember their father…but like a slow and loving Chinese torturer another letter from my mother would come.”
Jackson, who later transfer to a prison camp in Montgomery, Ala., in 2014, realized early on that incarcerated men need hope and perspective. In his case, that hope came in an envelope.
“I would get a stack of mail, some positive, some negative,” he said. “But I knew in that stack was a letter from my mother. Sometimes it would have a coffee cup ring on it.”
He found himself often reading his letters from home to his cellmates. They yearned for news from somebody’s home.
One of his mother’s letters reads: “I hope all is well for you? Most importantly, I hope you are productive and using your time wisely.”
A more cautionary note read: “You know, you are not being spoken of well at your home. You know that! You think there is pain in male/female relationships. Well, let me tell you, you haven’t had pain until you witness he pain a child brings to their parents. That is a pain no one wishes on people they don’t even like.”
Jacqueline Jackson was talking about her son’s wife, Sandi Jackson, a former Chicago alderman. The couple fell apart after they both plead guilty in February 2013 to federal charges related to looting of his federal campaign treasury. She served a one-year sentence for filing false income tax returns. In 2018, Jackson and his wife reached a settlement in their contentious divorce case.
Mother and son believe these letters of endearment and encouragement may be helpful to anyone who has a relative or friend in prison.
“My children are my responsibility for the rest of my life…to help them with their footing in society,” Jacqueline Jackson said. “We are supposed to make ourselves available to our families. Love is not part-time. It’s tough and compassionate.”
The Jacksons say they know they’re blessed with Jesse Jackson Sr., a former presidential candidate, in their lives. Jacqueline Jackson and Jesse Jackson Sr. have been married since 1962, having met as students at North Carolina A&T, according to The Associated Press.
Jackson says he’s now spending his time caring his father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and rebuilding his relationship with his family and friends.
But his relationship with mother continues to be strong. She was the one person who helped lift him “out of blame, shame and guilt,” he said.
“We all have mountains and valleys in our lives and certainly I grew up with my mother and father, I have experience more mountain tops,” Jesse Jackson Jr. said. “But prison provided me with a valley view. What it means to be down, what it means to have limited life options, what it means to be personally trapped in profound shame, looking for someone to blame knowing in my heart knowing I am guilty and culpable.”
Jacqueline L. Jackson and Jesse Jackson Jr. will discuss her new book, “Loving You, Thinking of You, Don’t Forget to Pray: Letters to My Son in Prison,” (Skyhorse Publishing, Feb. 5, 2019).
▪ May 3, 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, in North Hills shopping center.
▪ May 4, noon to 3 p.m. at The Durham Hotel, 315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham. Meet and Greet on the rooftop.