By: Nathan R.
Beit T’Shuvah counselor Kevin Jackson vividly remembers his first day as a resident, freshly paroled after serving 21 years of a life sentence. It was a Friday and at that evening’s Shabbat services, he was welcomed into the community. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Welcome home,’ and I didn’t take it in the sense of welcome home from prison. It was, ‘Welcome home to this family.’ I think that was just a big part of what really made me feel like I was a part of this community before I even really met anyone.”
The community Kevin found at Beit T’Shuvah was a far cry from the community of his youth. After the deaths of his parents, he and his siblings were taken care of by his grandmother, who was already taking care of his ailing grandfather. “I was out in the streets most of the time because my grandmother worked as a housekeeper, so she worked long, hard days, and then she had to come home and pretty much take care of her husband.” Kevin’s older brother introduced him to the gang lifestyle, and he started identifying as a gang member by the time he was 13 or 14. “My brother was already fully immersed in the lifestyle and his influence on me was big at that time. I had to live up to his reputation, being his little brother.”
Kevin was soon caught up in dealing and using drugs. “I began with marijuana from time to time. I used PCP and I tried alcohol a few times. It wasn’t enough for me to just get a buzz. I had to get drunk, and I just didn’t like that feeling.”
Kevin was seventeen and on a double date at the movies when he was accosted by three rival gang members in the parking lot. His friends had gone on ahead into the theater to buy the tickets and Kevin was alone, looking for a place to stash his gun. He ended up shooting all three of them—one died. Kevin was charged with second-degree murder and two attempted murders with other gang enhancements. Kevin was tried and convicted as an adult and entered prison at age nineteen with a sentence of 51 years-to-life. That would have made him 68 years old before even being considered for parole.
Kevin spent the first several years in prison continuing in the gang lifestyle, well aware that he was looking at decades in prison before even being considered for parole. “There was no hope for me, and that’s all I had to look forward to for the rest of my life. I felt like I needed to continue in that lifestyle in order to have some sort of protection in there and to just have a way of survival.”
About twelve years or thirteen years into his sentence, Kevin’s grandmother passed away. “After that, I’d started really getting high to try to deal with that grief and that hurt.” He started selling drugs, too, and ended up getting put in isolation after getting caught.
Kevin took the year spent in isolation to reflect on his life up to that point. “I felt a lot of guilt and shame because I know I hadn’t done anything up to that point to be the kind of person that my mom and my grandmother had raised me to be.” That motivated him to have the courage to start trying to change his life and honor their memory. “I felt like I needed to be authentic in who I was and who they raised me to be.”
After returning to general population, Kevin started going to school, educating himself, and getting in tune with spiritual practices. “I wanted to be an independent thinker, an independent person,” he says. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I knew it was right for me.”
Then, about fifteen years into Kevin’s term, state law changed to allow prisoners who committed their crimes as minors to be reevaluated sooner than their original sentences would have allowed. Once he found out about this, he got an attorney through the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Project. This attorney had represented a client who had been through Beit T’Shuvah and she referred Kevin to the Alternative Sentencing team here.
Kevin was denied at his first parole hearing nineteen years into his sentence, partly due to his behavior the first dozen years he was incarcerated. “I had to answer to my history.” A few years later, his second hearing was successful, and he was granted parole. He had already started a correspondence with Janet Markowitz in Alternative Sentencing, went through the rigorous screening process for admission and was accepted. “I had applied to some other places and had been accepted, but at the end of the day, I chose to come here and I wanted to be here.”
During Kevin’s time as a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, his counselor, Jeremy Pool, suggested that he intern as a Program Facilitator, which he did. He had discovered in prison that he had a knack for communication. “I recognized that a lot of people will gravitate to me for advice. A lot of people just would bounce ideas and things off me, just to get my opinion and it felt easy.” While in prison, Kevin had obtained his associates degree in social and behavioral science and he continued his education outside at West LA College to get his CADAC certification.
Kevin was hired as a full-time employee and advanced from there, with the eventual goal of becoming a counselor. “It’s just about trying to be competent, diligent and effective.” When Jeremy was ready to move on to other opportunities, Kevin was grateful that he had his former counselor’s blessing to apply for that position. “It was a really very good feeling when it was decided that I’d be actually filling in for him.”
Looking to the future, Kevin wants to stay in counseling, with the hope that he can do work in the juvenile justice realm, even if it’s just volunteer work. “I want to help underprivileged youth, people who are struggling with some of the same things that I did when I was growing up, and show them that there is a better way and there is a way to change it.”