Life After Prison

On a bench in Mullaly Park, Donald Jackson rubbed his wide, tattooed hands together nervously. Children shouted from the newly-renovated playground and the D train periodically boomed overhead, but Jackson still lowered his voice whenever a stranger walked past.

“I used to sleep in this park,” he said with a chuckle. “But it didn’t look like this. It was like a crack park. No one came here, there was dirt and crack vials everywhere.”

But just as the park has seen some major improvements in the past decade, Jackson is struggling to remake himself. He’s 30 years old with a neatly trimmed black goatee. His clothes are well tailored. Based on his vocabulary, you’d never know he got his G.E.D. diploma in prison. The life of “Stack Dollars” Jackson, the Blood and troubled teenager, seems distant — almost foreign — to Jackson, who is now clean-cut and polite. At times, it seems like he’s talking about a different person altogether. But little glimmers of “Stacks” continue to haunt him, such as the telltale moneybag tattoos on each of his hands, or the former friends and accomplices hanging out on any given corner in his neighborhood.

The first step on Jackson’s journey to turn his life around was enrolling in the Osborne Association’s job training program. After numerous aptitude and personality tests, he was accepted into the organization’s construction training classes. Now, for the next four weeks Jackson is expected to spend weekdays preparing to be placed in his first-ever job.

Jackson has been behind bars for almost a third of his life. Between ages 20 and 29, he was a free man for exactly 92 days before being locked up again for drug and burglary charges. Most recently, he was released from Queensboro Correctional Facility following a three-month sentence for marijuana possession and parole violation. He is determined that this time will be different.

Jackson’s story is all too common in the Bronx. According to estimates from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School, nearly two-thirds of the population in New York state prisons come from New York City. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx could be losing up to 20 percent of their adult male population to incarceration.

At 16, Jackson was well on his way to becoming one of those statistics. He had his first run-in with the law his freshman year at William Howard Taft High School, where he was caught selling drugs and proceeded to have a fistfight with the school security guard. His first charge was assault on a police officer, and he was sentenced to two weeks on Rikers Island.

“Growing up, I was always teased for not having things, so I took jail to be like gladiator school,” he shook his head while remembering the financial struggles of growing up in a single-parent household. “Like, if you can go here and pass the test then you’ll come out and you’ll be a gangster. For so long, that’s what I wanted to be.”

From there, his life became a spiral of drugs, theft, gang violence and court dates. All in all, Jackson could be the poster child for recidivism. As an African-American man with a rap sheet longer than most resumes, the odds were stacked against him.

In a study conducted by The Center for Court Innovation, researchers found that 53 percent of parolees in New York City were re-arrested within three years of their release; Forty-two percent were actually re-convicted. This study, like many others before it, also found that these recidivism rates drastically increased for Black and Hispanic men, young offenders or those with “more extensive criminal histories.”

Jackson thinks his life would be much different if law enforcement considered his potential, not just his mistakes.

“When parole officers read your life from your rap sheet, it seems like you’re this robbing, stealing, assaultive drug dealer,” Jackson said. “But they don’t take into account the things you’ve been through in life. They just care about the crimes you’ve committed and making sure you don’t do it again.”

So what will it actually take to keep Jackson out of jail? He hopes the plethora of programs he’s enrolled in combined with a newfound maturity will do the trick. He spends his days at job training and his evenings at court-mandated drug counseling and anger management. He visits his parole officer once a week and spends most of his free time working out at his local New York Sports Club, playing video games or reading self-help books.

“But I get it now,” he repeats, whenever he catches himself complaining about the tedium of his programs or the limitations of his parole. If he says it enough, maybe he’ll actually believe in the system he’s grown to distrust.

Career advisors at the Osborne Association are confident their programs can make the difference for clients like Jackson. As one of the most popular programs, the construction training course gives participants $200 for every two weeks of training they attend and touts placement in jobs that pay, on average, $13-$15 an hour. Participants learn “soft skills” like writing cover letters and interview techniques, as well as “hard skills” like carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. Once they have completed the course, a job developer for the association helps place clients in jobs through the city’s construction laborers union, Local 79.

According to the association’s director of communications, Jonathan Stenger, the program has been so successful that is is being expanded to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center (also known as “The Barge”) in Hunts Point. Now inmates will have access to construction skills training before they are even released.

A number of studies have identified education and job training as key factors in reducing recidivism. A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participate in some form of vocational training program are 36 percent less likely to recidivate than those without access to these programs.

For now, Jackson is hopeful.

“I just want to be a normal person,” he said, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice. “I want to go to work, pay taxes, get income taxes at the end of the year and have money that I don’t have to look over my back for.” But that desperation is replaced with pride when he pulls out his brand new New York ID card.

His new ID, like his new job program and career prospects, is just one indication that Jackson is well on his way to being “normal.” He puts on slacks and a button-down every day for training and never misses a meeting with his parole officer. But still, his old friends waste away at their old outposts along Jerome Avenue, waiting for “Stacks” to join them again.

They called out his nickname with enthusiasm and offered him drinks and drugs, but this time Jackson kept walking.