In 2001, Kesha Jackson was browsing paintings at a fair in her Pittsburgh neighborhood when she spotted one she liked. She turned to the seller and locked eyes with John “Big John” Jackson. “The rest,” she says, “was history.”
Things took a turn the following year when John was convicted on drugs and firearms charges and sentenced to 242 months in a federal facility, but their love was a lifeline and they married in 2009.
By 2019, Big John had served 18 of his 20 years and was eagerly anticipating a court date that his attorney believed would see him granted early release. He was due in court on Wednesday, August 28, 2019, but he never got there. Instead, Big John Jackson died incarcerated at Forrest City Low in Forrest City, Arkansas, on Sunday, August 25, 2019. He’d been suffering from undertreated deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and a MRSA infection.
How did this happen? The truth is that Kesha will never know exactly how her husband died. Far from providing an explanation, no one at the prison has ever contacted Kesha to acknowledge his death beyond perfunctory condolences.
What is known is that Kesha’s story is far from unique: Since John’s death, she has heard from other people with loved ones who died inside with similar experiences. “No one contacted them. No one let them know what was going on. It’s almost like if you toss a dog to the woods and just say forget about it. I find it very hard to describe the depth of that pain,” she says, “to know that no one took responsibility.”
Today, Kesha’s mission is to have John’s story told, to lobby for accountability from prison authorities, and to ensure that no one else endures the pain she has.
Surely if something was seriously wrong, someone would notify her. But at 6:00 a.m., Kesha checked John’s locator again: It now read “DECEASED.”
The tragic end to this story may have played out in 2019, but for Kesha and Big John, the nightmare began in late 2017 when he was transferred to Forrest City from FCI Allenwood in Pennsylvania. Even nearly a thousand miles away, Kesha could tell there was something different about this new facility: John regularly complained about how filthy it was, the kitchens infested with “creepy crawlers,” the ceiling fans caked with dirt.
Moreover, Kesha noted a marked decline in the quality of medical care her husband received. John’s DVT was documented, and in Pennsylvania he had had hospital checks regularly. When he moved to Arkansas, Kesha recalls, “they were not sending him out to the hospital as much,” and nine months later he contracted MRSA, the so-called staph “superbug.” John developed a bump on his leg, which subsequently burst, leaving an open wound. But rather than take him for hospital treatment, the prison initially opted merely to wrap the leg in gauze.
By summer 2019, John had been in and out of the hospital for more than a year, but clotting issues, combined with the persistent infection, meant that his wound remained unhealed. He often struggled to stand, and the compression socks he was issued would not fit over the swelling. Instead of blood thinners, John was offered only aspirin. Kesha asked when he might get a hospital ultrasound, but John said he had to wait. Still, they focused on the upcoming court date: Soon they would be reunited and seek the medical care he struggled to access while incarcerated.
On August 21, Kesha received a message from her husband saying he had been placed in the SHU (special housing unit) for possession of a cell phone, but that he was fine, and his court date would go ahead as planned. It was the last communication she would ever have with him.
The evening of August 25, Kesha’s phone rang. It was John’s sister, who had heard from the family of another prisoner that there had been an incident at Forrest City, and that Kesha needed to contact the prison right away. She called John’s unit, but was met with a busy signal: “I must have called from 7 p.m. until 12 a.m. the next morning,” she recalls, but never got an answer.
When her sister-in-law rang back later that night to say she learned that John had passed away, “the pain was earth-shattering,” Kesha remembers, “but we kept trying to call.” In the midst of everything, she clung to the hope that Big John was okay: His status on the Bureau of Prisons inmate locator website still showed him in the facility, no one from the prison had contacted her, and when she finally got through to an officer around three in the morning, there was nothing in the system about John. Surely if something was seriously wrong, someone would notify her. But at 6:00 a.m., Kesha checked John’s locator again: It now read “DECEASED.”
Incredibly, it was another five hours before Kesha heard from the prison chaplain, who officially informed her of John’s death. When she questioned why it had taken so long for her to be notified, he told her it was not procedure to call a prisoner’s family unless it was “an emergency.” Kesha recalls her shock at his words: “I don’t know how much more urgent this could have been,” she remembers thinking. “He’s dead, you guys have updated the website, but I’m just getting a phone call now.”
Because no one at the prison would speak to her about John’s death, Kesha had the harrowing task of piecing together his final hours from information provided by his fellow prisoners. The story that emerges is horrifying. While in the SHU, Big John’s condition worsened. He struggled to breathe, drifting in and out of consciousness. His cellmate tried to ring the call bell but found it broken, so he banged on the door, screaming for help.
Rather than treating the situation as an emergency, a guard accused them of causing trouble, and it wasn’t until hours later that a second guard finally responded and found John unconscious. They dragged him, handcuffed, into the hallway and began CPR. The official story maintained by the BOP is that John died en route to the hospital, but Kesha was told by prisoners that he had already passed at that point.
Kesha lives in this uncertainty every day, haunted by unanswered questions about how John’s final crisis was handled: Why was the call bell broken? Would things have played out differently without the initial delay in the guards’ response? John’s death certificate lists pulmonary embolism as cause of death, but how did his undertreated MRSA contribute? A lack of independent prison oversight means Kesha will never receive the answers she deserves.
Kesha and Big John’s story is a tragedy on a personal level, but it also exemplifies the dangers of a prison system in desperate need of reform. Reports of inhumane living conditions and neglect like those John experienced have become all too common, and a lack of transparency and accountability among prison authorities disempowers both prisoners and their families. Kesha herself puts the matter eloquently: “Prisoners deserve to have appropriate medical care, to be in a clean facility. Even though they may have done something that was against the law on the outside, does that mean that they should be treated inhumanely on the inside?”
Please help FAMM work for independent prison oversight to so more families don’t have to experience the tragedy that happened to Kesha and Big John.