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Turning a life around — An incarcerated Bremerton man works to help troubled youths
His classroom is behind the prison walls of Clallam Bay Corrections Center. Ronnie Jackson, Jr. is studying to earn a vocational certificate in small business entrepreneurship – he wants to be ready when he gets out.
Put in prison after shooting a man at age 21, the Bremerton High School drop out has been there for 14 years. Although his release is currently scheduled for June 2021, Jackson is set on turning his life around before he is released by allowing himself to grow through taking classes, reading and writing. He also wants to help troubled youth so they don’t end up taking the path he took.
“Everything, the whole life — I regret it,” Jackson, 36, said earlier this month. “I don’t like the person I was back then.”
In October 1996, during a drug deal at a Tacoma Mall theater, Jackson shot another man in the stomach.
“I think about it every day,” he said, adding that he is sad for the pain he has caused many others in addition to the victim.
It’s not something he ignores but in order to move on he spends his time toward enhancing his life to be a better person.
Prior to prison, he read maybe one book, now his list continues into the 100s.
He also hopes to help young people who are struggling in life from sharing his past experiences — involving drug dealing and being part of a gang — and how they negatively impacted him and others around him. Those who know the man say helping others is something that he is more than capable of doing.
Jackson was born on August 19, 1975 in San Diego. When he was about two years old, he and his family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee and then later his mother and sister — who is 18 months older than him — moved to Bremerton when he was in the sixth grade. His father, who Jackson said never played a fatherly role in his life, remained in Tennessee.
However, Jackson returned to Chattanooga for a year when he was 16 years old “to escape from home.”
“He was my father, I always wanted to be around him,” he said.
But his father was what Jackson called “living the street life.” Instead of going to school, Jackson worked at a grocery store as well as “worked the streets.” He said he was involved in an incident where he got shot once. And he didn’t know who to turn to.
“Back then I didn’t think they understood what I was going through,” Jackson said of others who tried to help him. “I didn’t know how to express myself.”
With his father out of the picture, Jackson didn’t have an adult role model. He lived with his mother until he was about 17 but then moved in with his sister who was living on her own. His relationship with his mother had always been rocky because he said she was emotionally and physically abusive toward him.
Pastor Sam Rachal, formerly the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Bremerton for 21 years, was one of those people who reached out to Jackson. Rachal is currently part of a mentorship program with students in the Central Kitsap School District. Last school year he mentored three students at Olympic High School.
Though he reached out to Jackson, he never formally mentored him. Rachal said he first met Jackson as a teen when he got in trouble at Bremerton High School. School administrators brought Rachal in to be a mediator in the situation.
Rachal also got to know him because Jackson and his daughter dated for a short time.
“He had so many other things in his head, he couldn’t wrap his mind around that I was trying to help him,” Rachal said. “He didn’t feel I could understand what he was going through.”
About eight years ago Rachal received a phone call from Jackson in prison.
The former pastor said he was then put on Jackson’s visitation list and has seen him four times in prison. The last time he saw him was in 2009 for a graduation ceremony at the Monroe Correctional Facility — where Jackson was incarcerated at the time — for fulfilling credits for a vocational computer repair class. During his time in Monroe, Jackson also mentored new inmates as a way to help them adjust.
Jackson and Rachal talk on the phone about once a month. When he was in Monroe, Jackson worked in the visitors room to earn his own money to make his phone calls. At Clallam Bay, Jackson has school in the mornings and in the afternoons he has recreation and reads or writes. There are options at Clallam Bay for offenders to work in departments including industries and the kitchen. Those working in industries sew uniforms and earn wages of 55 cents an hour. On Aug. 11, the facility had 898 offenders — about 900 is the capacity and it is generally at or near capacity, said Fay Gingell, the facility’s community partnership program coordinator.
Aside from in-person visits and phone conversations, Rachal and Jackson also stay in touch through email and mail. Last month, Rachal received a letter from Jackson. However, it wasn’t a letter directed at Rachal — it was the opposite.
“It’s unfortunate that I must reach out to you from my prison cell nevertheless I am extending my hand to offer my support and guidance to your concerns,” the letter states.
The typed page-and-a-half letter encourages the reader to make something of his life and to find inspiration from friends and family as well as Black leaders including Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The contents of the letter did not come as a surprise to Rachal, who said Jackson is trying to reach out to young people who may be troubled — especially African American men. Jackson wrote it for Rachal to forward to teens he mentors. Jackson said when he is released from prison, he hopes to be able to help youth through giving public talks at high schools.
“He has something to say. He has this passion to help,” Rachal said.
Something from scars
For the past six years, Jackson has been writing what he said may eventually become a book of his life experiences and reflections. Another component that could end up helping those who read it — if he decides to take it that route.
Jackson said he does not write every day — sometimes he even goes a few months without adding to his reflections — and it’s not due to writer’s block. When he draws on his past experiences and puts it down on paper, it brings up bad feelings.
“It’s like peeling the scabs off the scars,” he said. “You have to relive the events.”
Wanting to turn something positive out of those “scars” is not only what Rachal believes, but even those who haven’t seen or spoken to Jackson since before he was first incarcerated.
Cynthia Brady, 50, knew Jackson since he was about 14 years old and said he wasn’t that loud as a teenager and was well-mannered.
She said because she had eight children, a lot of other kids would come to her house and chat and Jackson was one of those who would do so every so often.
“He told me that he wanted to get out of that lifestyle and I told him he could do it,” Brady recalled.
At first Jackson didn’t want to join a gang, but the area he was selling cocaine was in a gang’s “designated area,” he said. He had the choice to either join, or stop selling drugs in that area, he said, adding that he wanted to continue making money though.
He was 14 years old when he first started hanging around with the Acacia Block Crips, one of the about five known gangs in Bremerton during the mid-1990s, Jackson said. When he was 16, he was initiated into the gang — which meant getting beat up by a group of about 20 members.
With no other group of friends or people he thought he could go to, he found acceptance with the gang. Since being incarcerated, Jackson said he has lost ties with those of Acacia Block Crips, and has no intentions of connecting with them. He added that if he wanted to, he may be able to sell drugs in prison, but he has decided on a new outlook to life.
That doesn’t mean all the people associated with his past lifestyle are not around.
“They’re still out there,” he said of his former gang.
Gang-related crime in Bremerton has decreased since the 1990s, said Sgt. Randy Plumb of the Special Operations Group with the Bremerton Police Department. In the early 1990s, the Special Operations Group was created to primarily focus on combating gang-related crime.
Its mission still involves gang activity though a majority of the work now focuses on drug distribution, Plumb added.
“We have sporadic gang-related activity once in a while — some bleed over from Tacoma,” Plumb said, adding that the incidents are typically fights and are sometimes drug-related.
Because gang-related crime in Bremerton does not occur as often, there are no recorded numbers on those types of incidents.
“There were visible signs of gang activity by the clothing they wore and the graffiti tagging back in the 90s,” Plumb said. “We aren’t necessarily seeing that these days, at least around here.”
Regardless of whether or not the gang currently has a presence, Brady believes Jackson won’t go back to that lifestyle.
“Some people make big mistakes,” she said. “After everything he has been through, he’ll be able to grow and help some of these kids who are lost.”
Brady said she has had her own ups and downs in life. The Bremerton resident had been struggling with a drug addiction until she was sent to drug court in 2008, she said. Because of Jackson’s choice to not consume — to her knowledge and others that know Jackson including Rachal, he never used drugs — reinstates that he is smart.
Jackson said that he smoked marijuana when he was 16 to 17, but didn’t use any other drugs.
Betty Saulsberry, of Bremerton, also knew Jackson from when he was a teenager. She said that every Sunday, the chairman of the Deacon Board would drive a school bus and pick children up — including Jackson and his sister — to attend Sunday school at Sinclair Missionary Baptist Church.
Jackson’s church attendance started to waver as he got older, Saulsberry said, adding that he would show up once in a while and then disappear until he eventually stopped attending all together.
“I think everyone that was around him tried, but they were just wasting their breath. He wasn’t hearing it,” said Saulsberry, 66.
Now he knows that there are people who support him including Rachal, his sister and a few close friends not associated to the gang.
While Jackson works toward a new direction, he said there hasn’t been a specific incident or turning point that made him want to steer his life around — one of helping lost youth. It came gradually, he said.
“I think it’s part of my responsibility now to help people not come here,” Jackson said.