In her book, “Loving You, Thinking of You, Don’t Forget to Pray: Letters to My Son in Prison,” Jacqueline L. Jackson shares a glimpse into a mother’s heart as she endures her child’s prison sentence, patiently waiting from the outside. Jacqueline is the wife of Rev. Jesse Jackson and mother of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
Jacqueline says it was important to her to write to Jesse almost every day he was imprisoned. “I wanted him to have five things,” she tells the Chicago Defender. “I wanted him to know that he was going to be missed; I wanted those who were around him and had the responsibility of monitoring him to understand that this was a person wo was dearly loved and valued — that he was not being thrown away or forgotten; I wanted to prepare him for re-entry by giving him a day-to-day feel of his community … I write the other reasons at the opening of the book.”
Now that Jesse Jr. has served his time, he wanted to give his mother a gift too: a book with the letters that he was able to save throughout his time in prison facilities in North Carolina and Alabama. When he received the letters, he shared them with other inmates because a prisoner is only allowed to keep a certain number of letters and personal items, according to his mother. As Jesse Jr. was leaving prison, his fellow inmates handed him back the letters in a touching gesture. Now through this book, published in February 2019, others get to read the thoughts of his mother who promised to write him every day he was away from home.
“Writing him every day was not as difficult as mailing the letters,” Jacqueline says laughing.
She said she was very angry, especially with the judicial system. “It is not a correctional institution … it is an institution that is about punishing. It doesn’t heal; there is no love there, no grace. And those are reasons I wrote him every day. I wanted him to stay connected to a true loving, community. I wanted him to share that love with the people he touched and impacted.”
Jacqueline says she hopes by publishing the book, others who have loved ones in prison will gain hope and will not abandon those behind bars.
“I want to encourage people to not abandon their loved ones,” she says. “This system … where absolute power corrupts absolutely … our people are abandoned and allowed to self-destruct and destroy our community … I’m hoping that by staying in touch with their loved ones that they would put an end to recidivism and prepare people for re-entry.”
She spent a lot of time bringing Jesse Jr. up-to-date on what was happening in the community so he wouldn’t feel so out of touch when he returned home. She mentioned how much construction was happening in Hyde Park and notified him when a community member or family member died.
The mother of five also shares wise words of wisdom with her son as only a mother can.
She wrote in one letter, “Don’t become a prisoner.” Jacqueline says she got that from a 17th century poet who wrote his loved one who was incarcerated. She says she wanted her son to know “wherever you are, that does not define your character or your authenticity. They have a sign that says this is a cage and it is for prisoners…don’t you be one. Consider yourself a detainee, one who has been stopped on your journey.” She didn’t want her son to have the mindset of a prisoner.
Her wisdom goes even deeper when she quotes writer Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn, who says “The object of life is the maturity of the human soul” rather than prosperity. She makes a serious effort to keep her son’s spirits up and give him something to think about while he is isolated from family and friends.
From her son’s response, her encouragement worked. Jesse Jackson Jr. told the Defender, “I am grateful for the journey life has taken me, including prison. I often say that prison was the best thing that ever happened to me. While in prison, I not only reflected on the changes I wanted to make in my own life and space, I was grateful for every man that I met whose stories greatly impacted my life. I promised them that I would elevate their stories, and the stories of the need for national redemption for 68 million men and women who have paid their debts to society and deserve not only a second chance, but to be new men and women in the eyes of their neighbors. To this struggle, I have pledged the last full measure of my devotion.”
Just as important as it was to keep Jesse Jr. encouraged about his spiritual and emotional state, his mom, like most moms, was also very intentional about reminding her son to take care of his physical body. Jacqueline reminded her son to eat well — including his vegetables and more “whole foods.”
In the book, each letter is paired with a scripture. Jacqueline says she had the scriptures in the letters to Jesse but she didn’t elaborate on them, remembering her son holds a theology degree from Chicago Theological Seminary. “What would I look like explaining scriptures to him,” she says laughing again. “I kept trying to bring him back to his training … I thought he would choose religion/theology, but he chose Congress.”
Along with the beautiful sentiments this mother sent to her oldest son in prison, readers get a glimpse into the historic family’s life — and it looks pretty ordinary. Jacqueline says many people thought that Jesse Jr. was in a hotel or that the Jacksons lived a very privileged life.
“Until you read the book about an ordinary day [in my life], you don’t realize that I feel the rain too … my home leaks too,” she said of her many home repairs that were mentioned throughout the book.
“People don’t realize my family members are not celebrities; we are personalities. We’ve never been celebrities — their lives are very selfish; personalities blend in with the community and society. Our lives are purposeful, life is big.”
On a personal note, Jacqueline admits that she was saddened that Jesse Jr. and his wife Sandi’s marriage did not “survive the prison experience.” But in the book, she does share that she hopes they keep their two children’s best interest as a priority.
“I support whatever decision they made to make their [lives] better … but children are the first priority,” Jacqueline says.
Jesse Jr. and Sandi served separate sentences on charges related to misuse of campaign funds.
The title of the book sums up Jacqueline’s message to her son beautifully. She says she didn’t realize that most of her letters included, “Loving you, thinking of you and don’t forget to pray.”
“I feel the title says it all,” she reflects.
The book is definitely a symbol of a mother’s love and wisdom — conveyed through precious letters to her incarcerated son.