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Penn State Student Turns Personal Experience Into Fuel Toward Criminal Justice Reform

While most young children spend their adolescent years watching cartoons or playing with neighborhood friends, Hannah Jackson and her mother were struggling to make ends meet.

At just two months old, Jackson’s father was convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated in Georgia following a “bunch of felonies stemming from a drug addiction.” At that moment, the Jackson family’s life flipped completely upside down.

“We had zero money,” Jackson said. “My mom was surviving off $500 a month, but that was living expenses and all that with a newborn baby.”

Even though her father served his jail sentence, it was apparent that he wasn’t getting the rehabilitation help that he desperately needed while incarcerated. When her father eventually did get out of prison, he still struggled with the same problems he did before the conviction.

“That’s one of the major problems within the system,” Jackson said. “We don’t have the programming that we need to make sure that people are actually getting the help they need and that they’re getting better and being rehabilitated so that when they can come home, they can be beneficial members of society.”

Dealing with her husband in prison and raising an infant, Jackson’s mother was forced to drop out of high school and work toward her GED before eventually moving to Florida. Motivated by the injustices that her husband dealt with, Jackson pursued a degree in political science from the University of South Florida before eventually moving the family again to earn her law degree at Santa Clara University in California.

“[She] was like, ‘I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to fight for people who [had] this happen to them,'” Jackson said. “I feel like a lot of the time when you’re wronged by society or wronged by the system, it’s really easy to be mad and not try and overcome it, but I feel like she really did overcome it in the best way.”

Her mother’s work rubbed off on Jackson as she began her own activism and started campaigning for different people and causes by the age of four. At nine, she convinced California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a 2013 bill banning the use of lead ammunition in hunting. Three years later, she fought and helped pass a city ordinance that forced weights to be put on every balloon for all city events in the state of California.

Although her early adolescence years focused on the environment, at the age of 15, her activism shifted toward criminal justice reform. The connections her mother made while in law school coupled with the struggles her family dealt with led Jackson to be invited to the White House to share her family’s story as Mike Pence was introduced as the 48th Vice President of the United States.

“That speech was very life-changing,” Jackson said. “It made me realize how much power my story had and how many people I could help. I spoke in front of the president, the vice president, and a lot of Congress…and I asked them to help other kids in my situation, [and] that was definitely one of my big moments.”

After completing law school, Jackson’s mother served as a Mill City council member for six years and even became mayor in 2016 for a year. In 2019, her mother moved back to the east coast and became the chief advocacy officer of “Reform,” an organization that “fights for the people inside” and specializes in those on probation and parole. Reform’s goal is to get people out of prison and turn them into beneficial citizens in society.

Reform hosts countless events and Jackson attended a job fair a few weeks ago in New York City through the organization. During the event, Reform helped provide haircuts, professional attire, interview preparation, and resume-building workshops to parolees in hopes of getting them jobs. In this event alone, over 50% of attendees were hired.

“One of the requirements for their parole is that they have to have a job,” Jackson said. “So, that’s a way to prevent them from going back into the system. Because if they don’t meet that requirement, then they will be arrested.”

Job fairs are one of the few endeavors that Reform helps out with. Jackson said it is also heavily involved with passing statewide and federal bills to improve the overall quality of prisons. She recently had the opportunity to visit a prison in Lancaster, California, and was shocked by the absence of basic hygiene items and the lack of trees.

“We work on making sure that people [are] surviving inside the prison,” Jackson explained. “We also work on making sure that there’s support in low-income communities so that people aren’t offending in the first place. And then really helping them after to make sure they have a job and that they’re not going back inside.”

While in California, Reform introduced its Future Shapers Advisory Council, which Jackson participates in with other notable Gen Z activists and influencers like Charli D’Amelio, Jack Wright, and CJ Stroud. The goal of the council is to educate younger generations about the injustices that happen within the prison system.

“This is an issue that people in my mom’s generation are finally talking about,” Jackson said. “But no one in our generation is really talking about [it]. So, we’re trying to make sure that Gen Z is aware of what’s happening and [how they] can help out.”

Despite what seems like lifelong experience and impact, Jackson is only wrapping up her first year at Penn State in pursuit of an international politics degree. She’s spent the bulk of her first year traveling to different conferences and events so no one has to deal with the same struggles her father and family once experienced. When asked what her ultimate goal is, she simply wished prison on no one.

“It costs $50,000 to incarcerate someone,” Jackson said. “So, if we put that money into education and…low-income neighborhoods, I really do believe we could stop crime before it happens and make neighborhoods safer and make sure that people are being treated fairly.”

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About the Author

Tobey Prime

Tobey is a senior studying broadcast journalism from Lancaster, PA. He is a major Pittsburgh sports fan and Miami Heat fanatic. When Tobey isn't writing for Onward State, you can catch him looking at photos of his pugs. Send your best insults to [email protected] or sports takes to @tobey_prime on Twitter.

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