February 3, 2019

Eleven Years Lost

Noura Jackson, freed from a devastating wrongful conviction, joins forces with Jason Flom of the Innocence Project to completely restore her good name.
Free at last: Jackson in Brooklyn, New York.  Photo by Justin Jay

Exoneree Noura Jackson was framed and wrongfully convicted of murdering her mother in Memphis, Tennessee in 2005. She spent 11 years in prison despite the lack of any physical evidence linking her to the crime. The Supreme Court of Tennessee overturned her conviction, but with prosecutors threatening to retry, Jackson was advised to accept an Alford Plea, ultimately leaving her with a guilty verdict on paper. CEO of Lava Records and founding member of The Innocence Project, Jason Flom, along with other Innocence Project associates, has been working in support of Jackson and her fight to claim her innocence. Here, Flom asks Jackson about her future plans, her best and worst moments, and the immense amount of criminal justice reform still needed in the United States.

JASON FLOM: Now that you’ve got a little distance between the nightmare, both time-wise and geographically, how has your perception changed, and how are you feeling now?

NOURA JACKSON: During my incarceration, I was very much aware of my own personal situation. After being out, being blessed to have people in my life and having somewhere to go, I realized that it’s way bigger than just me. This is a growing epidemic and it needs to be addressed.

JF: Because you were so young when this happened, your formative years—18 to 29 for you—were taken away, which is generally when people are figuring out what they want to do. They’re falling in love, they’re deciding on a career path or getting more education. Now that you’ve been out a little while and have a good foundation under your feet, what do you want to do? What do you want your life to look like five or 10 years from now?

NJ: Five years from now, I’d like to have a full college education, and be working in criminal justice reform and helping women in prison. You and I have talked on several occasions about the “second punishment.” I used to think that getting my freedom was the hard part, but this has been the hard part: being out, not being bitter, not being hung up on the things that happened to you because it ultimately does affect you, how you view things and how people view you. Your 20s are the time you’re finding yourself. You can mess up once or twice in your 20s and still have a productive life. I don’t have that. I can’t do that. I can’t get that time back, so I have to be 30, but I have to be a 30-year-old who didn’t get to experience her 20s.

This is less about party and love life, but more about where I want to be in order to be self-sustaining with education and a career. Ten years from now, I’d like to have a family. We take this grief-release class before we get out and one of the things that they pound in our head is, “Don’t look back. Don’t look back.” I have struggled with that so much because I feel like you can’t help but look back. There are so many people in there that weren’t as lucky as I am. It was a higher learning for me, and I don’t feel like it will all be in vain if I take it and apply it to my life now, in the free world. I remember being told that my life experience is my résumé, but it is hard for a person with a felony conviction to get a job even in the world of criminal justice, even in the world of nonprofit. People can talk about it and they can do statistics and they can pass laws, but nobody knows what it’s really like behind those walls other than the people that are—and were—behind the walls.

JF: This problem is so vast. Every day I learn more, even though I could probably teach a master’s course in criminal justice reform by now. I am still learning every day, and every day my mind gets blown. There’s a unique problem in America, which is women in prison. A lot of people talk about how we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population and we’re only 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Then the elephant in the room that no one is talking about is women, because we have 33 percent of that prison population. That’s like America’s other family-separation crisis. You have a special perspective of that, being a member of a club that nobody wants to join, and you had to suffer through it alone. If you could wave a magic wand and fix things about criminal justice in this country, whether it’s from inside the prison or outside, what would those be?

NJ: The food that they put into the prisons, the way they choose to oversee the prison population—the prison guards. The whole point of incarceration, so they say, is for a person to be able to reintegrate themselves into society. I don’t feel like women or men are given the tools to do so. There is not enough education. In some ways it could be helpful, but I feel like prison has become designed to be hurtful. You’re releasing people back into the world and you’re not giving them any tools to be a successful member of society.

I also wish that lawyers would be more educated in the aftermath. Plea deals are a huge problem. They’ll overcharge people and make these agreements so the person signing thinks that they have some kind of a deal. Many people don’t understand what they’re signing or how long they’re signing themselves away for. The Board of Probation and Parole, too. It’s really important who we have working there. People are just becoming a number, and they’re not humanizing the fact that they have a life. They’re not looking at mental health aspects of it or their priors.

Another thing is the way that women are targeted. A man is offered way more education and job training, such as getting their CDL-A [commercial driver’s] license. Women aren’t offered that, where at least they would have a trade or a job that they could go out into. It’s about family reunification as well. You have women who have several children, and have been away for several years. When they’re released, the caregivers are ready to pass their children off to them and they’re not equipped to handle that. They’ve been gone for a long time, and they’re struggling. The world changes. The biggest problem is what we are doing with people. We are just caging and warehousing them, and tax dollars are paying for it. It’s not really serving the purpose that they like to say it is.

Flom and Jackson at Purist’s 2018 Connect 4 festival. Photo by Charlotte DeFazio

JF: Yeah, we have a plea bargaining problem, a parole problem. There are so many problems. I interviewed a guy on my podcast yesterday, Tim Tyler, whose lawyer advised him to plead guilty when he didn’t even realize that pleading guilty meant he was getting a double-life sentence. He was in prison for dealing, not for any violent crime at all. The public defenders need to be better. It’s utter madness. But on a happier note, what’s a small-town girl like you doing in a city like this? You’re really a fish out of water. How have you adapted and what do you like or don’t like about it? Is this some Wizard of Oz stuff or what?

NJ: Yeah, I feel a little bit on the yellow brick road. I visited New York City with my mom when I was 16. She was a stockbroker, she used to joke and say when I went off to college, she would be 40, working on Wall Street, living in a sailboat on the harbor—obviously none of that got to happen. When I came to do the podcast with you, one of the things that I found in New York is that there is no one way to look or to dress or to talk. It’s a melting pot. It’s very diverse, and everybody’s in their own lane, doing their own thing. It can be a little intimidating. The city definitely moves a lot faster than the way of life down south.

At the same time, I was coming from Memphis, which is really a “good ol’ boys” atmosphere. If you’re a felon then you’re at the bottom of the totem pole and you can’t move past it, especially in my situation. I found that New York offers so much more opportunity. There are a lot more resources for someone with a felony conviction. I took an offered plea on the advice of my lawyers, thinking that I would get to maintain my innocence—and for some reason I thought that would be reflected in my record. It’s not, because in black and white on paper, I have a guilty plea. It makes it really hard. There are so many things that I have to think about that a normal person doesn’t think about. Am I going to be perceived as this or that because I have a felony conviction? Down south I got pulled over for going 5 miles under the speed limit because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t speeding—and I got a ticket for that. And when they run your name that stigma is on you. I have not had that happen in New York so far, knock on wood.

JF: What was the best and worst moment that you had in prison? And since you’ve been out?

NJ: There was one week out of every year when I felt like there was beauty and harmony in the prison and when I felt like we were making a difference and making the world a better place. That was through a program called WEBS, which is Women Empowered to Become Self-Sufficient. They offered courses throughout the year and actually geared their programs and their classes toward people who have longer sentences, life sentences, because they didn’t want those people to feel like they were just being warehoused.   In my situation, the Supreme Court overturned everything and all of a sudden I was getting ready to go home. Before, because I was at the end of the line, and it didn’t seem like I was going to be leaving anytime soon, I wasn’t given the few educational opportunities that the prison offered.

The most beautiful thing that I saw the whole time I was in there was seeing a mother hold their child and be able to share meals with them and even give a gift to them. At the same time, the worst moment was seeing when that child had to leave. If I make it personal, the worst thing was being strip-searched repeatedly. No dignity whatsoever. Every time you went in and out of a building or back and forth to court, or back and forth to your job, you had to take your clothes off—not by yourself, but with five other people and with several officers standing behind you, and depending on who the officers were, they would make comments about women or their bodies or their marks. It was the most degrading thing to have to be subjected to.

Out here, the best part is having the opportunity to do the things that I never thought I would have, which is seeking an education, being able to go and speak with you, being able to open up people’s eyes. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another to see it and I think for so many, I’m kind of the poster child for “It can happen to you.” We don’t like to say that we have these preconceived notions, but I was guilty of preconceived notions of what a person who was incarcerated looks like. The truth is with the way the legal and justice system is, it doesn’t matter if innocent or guilty. No races, no demographics. Rich or poor. It’s a very flawed system and it has no bounds.