By his own admission, 39-year-old Kevin Jackson made some really bad choices in his life, and he's paying for them. Jackson is behind bars in Sacramento, 14 years into a 30-to-life sentence for a third-strike conviction out of Orange County in 1996.
Here's a question, though:
If you knew Jackson had a history of mental illness dating back to the age of 9, that he walks with a cane and is expected to die within months from the cancer that has spread from his stomach to his spine and lymph nodes, and that his third strike involved stealing a set of keys, would you want your tax dollars spent to keep him locked up?
If you hadn't heard, inmates are being sprung early across California in the midst of an overcrowding and budget crisis. About 2,000 had been released as of last week, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone so far as to suggest shipping inmates to prisons in Mexico to save money.
"The priorities have become out of whack over the years," the governor said in January. "I mean, think about it, 30 years ago, 10% of the general fund went to higher education, and 3% went to prisons. Today, almost 11% goes to prisons, and only 7.5% goes to higher education."
As I said, Jackson earned his trip to prison. Court records and conversations with Jackson and his attorney tell the classic story of a foster home child who fell in with a gang at an early age, got locked up repeatedly and never got out of trouble.
As for the three strikes, the first two came when Jackson was 20 and waved a gun at his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend in a visitation dispute involving Jackson's son. No one was hurt. Strike three, first-degree robbery, came in 1996. It was a low-rent caper start to finish.
Jackson and an accomplice were arrested on suspicion of breaking into a Huntington Beach trailer and scuffling with a man, possibly as part of a drug deal gone bad. The man was not seriously hurt, but his keys ended up in the La Habra home where Jackson and his accomplice were staying.
There's disagreement about who was in that trailer and the extent of Jackson's involvement. His accomplice claims he pulled the job alone. But as Jackson's current attorney, deputy federal public defender Brian Pomerantz, tells it, the only certainty is that everyone involved, including his own client, was lying about something.
A jury found Jackson guilty, and strike three sent him to the concrete dugout. Just last week a federal magistrate rejected his request for a new hearing based on Jackson's contention that he didn't get a fair trial.
That's the criminal part of the story; now for the medical.
Two years ago, Jackson says, he began complaining of stomach pain, for which he was prescribed antacid medication. Months later, a more thorough exam detected gastric cancer. Jackson went under the knife last summer to remove a tumor, according to medical records.
Because of what Pomerantz described as typical bureaucratic and logistical delays, Jackson waited several months for chemotherapy treatment to begin, and his weight dropped precipitously as the cancer spread. Late last year, Pomerantz said, prison doctors determined that Jackson had only months to live, and they began the paperwork for a compassionate release.
But the wheels grind slowly, Pomerantz said, and Jackson could be dead before there's a ruling.
Tuesday morning, Jackson told me from the medical unit of his prison that he had just received a letter from his doctor, dated Feb. 2, indicating that the doctor believes he will be dead within six months.
"It stressed me out," said Jackson, whose weight has dropped in the last year from 185 pounds to 120. "But the circumstances are beyond my control."
And then there are Jackson's mental problems. He was first sent to a mental institution at 9, and his medical records show a later diagnosis of schizophrenia. Darcy Cox, a psychologist who examined him in prison, told me she believes Jackson has "borderline intellectual functioning" and "long-standing major depressive disorder with psychotic features."
We've made the mistake, Cox said, of incarcerating rather than treating people with mental illness. "Whatever side you fall on politically," she said, "this guy is costing us a great deal more money than he needs to."
Pomerantz is preparing an appeal of the magistrate's denial of a new hearing, and a UC Davis law clinic is considering a lawsuit against the state over Jackson's medical treatment.
I know that what I'm about to suggest is a virtual impossibility, bureaucracy and law being what they are. But wouldn't it make sense to work a deal and get Jackson to drop any legal action in return for expediting his compassionate release, so he can go home to die?
All he wants to do with the time he has left, Jackson told me, is to tell his son, in person, not to follow after him.
"The path I took was the wrong path," Jackson said, "and I'm paying for it now."